Montreal loves Yannick. Many in tonight’s audience were on their feet the moment he walked into the concert hall. Last year L’Orchestre Metropolitain released their season booklet in which half of the pages were filled with the same image of the maestro, each one elaborately ornamented with neo-Baroque complexity. His image is printed on each ticket, and a handwritten message is scrawled on the envelope: “Pour l’amour de la musique.” Needless to say, the Montreal native enjoys the lofty status of hometown hero. This kind of maestro worship is certainly not uncommon, and has been proven (by Gustavo Dudamel, among others) to fill concert halls to the lees. However, when the audience is more focused on the acrobatic and emotional exploits of a conductor than the content of the music itself, the poor composer (and often the orchestra) are left behind in neglect.

L’Orchestre Metropolitain’s season-opening program was an unusual one. The orchestra’s seven-concert season is typically filled with great romantic and twentieth century masterworks that provide maximum excitement for the audience. Tonight’s concert of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven was a refreshing look backwards by the orchestra––a creative choice which shows a tremendous amount of maturity and promotes the orchestra’s status as a serious symphony, not simply an orchestra that plays popular classics.

Haydn’s 97th Symphony began with delicious suspensions, the strings of L’Orchestre Metropolitain playing with rich tone, sans vibrato, and great sensitivity, which made the composers trademark sforzandi all the more effective. The string basses were arranged behind the winds in a line, providing a heightened sense of connection between the sections of the orchestra. Nézet-Séguin’s presence was impossible to ignore, as the young maestro continually smiled and reacted to every nuance in the score. The second movement, Adagio ma non troppo, achieved the perfect tempo: Haydn clearly did not want a slow movement in this symphony, but a calm dance. The Menuetto and Trio was light and lively––more than suitable for a festive evening at Esterhazy’s palace. Nézet-Séguin and L’Orchestre Metropolitain achieved clear and respectful classical refinement with this interpretation––a fine opening to the season.

Though already a veteran international soloist, young Jan Lisiecki’s personality is not colored by the fame that comes with success, but entirely by maturity and sincerity. It usually takes soloists years to realize that they needn’t prove their worth to the audience. Lisiecki entered the concert hall with complete confidence, and delivered a supremely honest and thoughtful Mozart. As the orchestra played the exposition of the Elvira Madigan Concerto alone, a pensive Lisiecki sat with his eyes closed, listening deeply to the music. Although his playing throughout the concerto was quite dynamic, alternating between playfully light and intensely focused, he did not join maestro Nézet-Séguin in freely displaying his emotions on his face. Lisiecki is quite obviously a youth who wants, and deserves, to be taken quite seriously as an interpreter of great music. His encore was a delightfully rustic Rondo Alla Turca, which elicited torrents of applause from the audience.

A scoreless Nézet-Séguin opened Beethoven’s mighty Fifth Symphony with an explosion of sound––though for all the enthusiasm reflected by the orchestra, the initial interpretation was quite bizarre. The first two fermatas, of which Wagner famously ‘channelled’ Beethoven, writing, “Hold my fermata firmly, terribly!” were cut shockingly short by Nézet-Séguin. Scarcely more than a bar was given to each fermata, which produced a rather unsettling beginning to the movement. The classical refinement and grace present in Nézet-Séguin’s first-half conducting was abandoned as the tempo surged forward, and his gestures became more wild and exaggerated. One couldn’t help but consider the spectacle a ‘Yannick show’ as the audience was compelled to focus more on his antics than the wonders of Beethoven’s music and the incredibly fine playing of the orchestra. This was most certainly a 21st century Beethoven reading––fast, dynamic and savage––and Nézet-Séguin knew exactly the effect this interpretation would create. Rampant excitement and enthusiasm are expected traits from this boisterous maestro, and his fame has certainly benefitted from this kind of positive energy. Although some clarity was sacrificed for panache, L’Orchestre Metropolitain played with elegance, wit and ferocity, all at the right moments, and with a polished and impressive sound deserving of such fine music.