Eighteen years ago Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain took a huge gamble by appointing a youthful local as its Music Director. That gamble has proven to be tantamount to winning a lottery jackpot. Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin has since vaulted to stratospheric status in his profession. He demonstrates his gratitude to the OM for having given him the opportunity to launch his professional conducting career by continuing on as the ensemble’s Music Director to this day.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Orchestre Métropolitain | François Goupil

The Maestro’s performances with this ensemble are consistently synergistic. This synergy was once again evident in the orchestra’s impressive handling of the complex and challenging Mahler Symphony no. 9 in D major. Nézet-Séguin is consistently praised for his ability to elicit the best from the players he conducts. His enthusiasm and energy create an ethos in which the musicians “buy in.” His performances are never “phoned in” by the players.

The evening opened with Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor. Hélène Grimaud, a long-time friend of the OM, had been booked as soloist. However she withdrew due to a shoulder injury. Another French pianist, Éric Le Sage, was her replacement. Le Sage’s subtle sound is characteristic of the French tradition of Schumann piano playing. Le Sage has performed with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, which up until recently had Nézet-Séguin as its Music Director.

It is to Clara Schumann that we owe the only Piano Concerto written by her husband, Robert. He had initially composed a Fantasy for piano and orchestra, which Clara suggested he transform into a proper concerto.

Éric Le Sage plays Schumann
© Orchestre Métropolitain | François Goupil

The dexterity and sensitivity of Le Sage were front and centre in this work. His cadenza was outstanding. Nézet-Séguin ensured that an optimal balance was achieved between soloist and orchestra. The woodwinds shone, particularly oboist Lise Beauchamp. The robust string section added to the vibrancy of this performance.

Mahler’s Ninth Symphony was the last he was able to complete. It is imbued with the sense of fate that marks the final orchestral works of his career. It was written under the shadow of the death of his daughter Maria, who succumbed to scarlet fever in 1907 at the age of four. In addition, Mahler had recently lost his directorship of the Vienna Court Opera due to anti-Semitism. Furthermore, Mahler had been diagnosed with a serious heart ailment. 

Nézet-Séguin, in his remarks to the audience, pointed out that Mahler dreaded composing a Ninth Symphony because of the historical precedent that the ninth was often a composer’s final symphony. To Nézet-Séguin, the work represents a profound reflection of life – the robust joys of nature as well as the finality of one’s time on earth. Even the boisterous dances of this symphony’s central movements have a morbid tinge.

The Orchestre Métropolitain and Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Orchestre Métropolitain | François Goupil

The slow lyric section of the opening movement was beautifully done. All sections of the orchestra rose to the virtuosic demands of Mahler, particularly in the middle movements. However I felt that the tutti fortissimos in those middle movements were overblown. Kudos to principal players Brian Bacon (viola) and Louis-Phillipe Marsolais (horn) on their solos. Congratulations to Carmelle Préfontaine (contra-bassoon) and Daniel Hill (tuba) for their laudable contributions to the bass line.

The highlight of the evening was the final movement. Here Nézet-Séguin achieved a sense of poignancy through his judicious management of the tension and release in each and every phrase. One phrase seamlessly dove-tailed to the next. The emotional impact of Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation was proven by the reverent silence in the hall that was sustained at the Symphony’s conclusion... a protracted silence at a work’s conclusion is rarely achieved in North American concert halls.

We saw once again that when Nézet-Séguin returns to his native city, a lovefest ensues.