To what extent can a new seating plan affect the listeners' experience of an orchestra, or the players' experience of each other? According to Hervé Niquet, conducting the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in an all-Mozart concert on 18th April, it can benefit both parties a good deal. During his introductory remarks, Niquet spoke about the atypical seating layout for the evening’s rendering of Mozart’s Symphony no. 41, “Jupiter”. The six double basses were split three and three on either side of the string section. Straight across the back row were the cellists, in front of them a single row of violas. The woodwinds were seated in the orchestra’s front row. Niquet explained that in his opinion this configuration reflected more authentic period practice.

Hervé Niquet
© Eric Manas

Once the music-making began, other interpretative strategies became evident. Throughout it seemed that the instrumentalists and singers had been instructed to make substantial crescendi on all long notes – an affectation, in my view. I also felt that the forte sections of both works on the program were handled over-robustly. Overall, though, the animation of Maestro Niquet made the music come alive.

Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, filled the first half. Completed in 1788, this was not only Mozart’s final symphony, but also his largest and most complex. In this performance, the quiet sections were exquisite, although the slow movement would have been enhanced by a more seamless musical line. The fugal coda of the final movement was well handled.

After intermission came Mozart's Requiem. The composer worked on this commission during the final two months of his all too brief life, and it remained unfinished at the time of his death, 5th December 1791. The work was completed by Franz Xaver Süssmayr. 

In terms of stationing his forces for the Requiem, Niquet built on the approach he had taken for the “Jupiter”, angling the chorus toward the conductor and placing the singers in front of the orchestra, split between the right and left sides of the stage. But since the Choeur de l’OSM was not directly facing the audience, some balance issues ensued. By contrast, the use of basset horns rather than clarinets paid off, their darker timbres enhancing the palette of colours produced by the winds, who were once again seated in the front row of the orchestra.

Aside from Swiss mezzo-soprano Marie-Claude Chappuis, the vocal soloists were all Canadian, and this youthful group made a highlight of the vocal quartet sections. But it's the soprano soloist to whom Mozart gives the lion's share of the solo work in his Requiem, and Heather Newhouse rose to the occasion, her resonant voice projecting well. The closing Lux Aeterna was beautiful.

The chorus, ably prepared by Andrew Megill, shone in the more gentle sections of the Hostias. Kudos also to tenor trombonist Vivian Lee for her stellar legato playing in the Tuba mirum.