The conventional view is that the only viable way to ensure a sizeable audience at a concert featuring a contemporary creation is to surround it with well-known and popular orchestral repertory. On the face of it, the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal’s programme featuring the new work, a Dvořák symphony, a Berlioz overture and a Ravel showpiece for violin and orchestra appeared to be a near-ideal solution. Wednesday’s concert at the Maison Symphonique proved that occasionally these piecemeal concerts can be so much more than originally intended. The seemingly disjointed program that included Berlioz’s Le Corsaire overture, Dvořák’s equally celebrated Ninth Symphony and Ravel’s Tzigane in addition to a new work by Serge Arcuri were revealed to be voyages of complementary but fundamentally different kinds. That the concert gelled into something more than the sum of its individual parts was in large part thanks to the invited conductor, Jacques Lacombe.

Jacques Lacombe © J.F. Bérubé
Jacques Lacombe
© J.F. Bérubé

Lacombe, who was the OSM’s principal guest conductor between 2002 and 2006 and is now the Music Director of the New Jersey Symphony, returned “home” and demonstrated that though he retains his youthful good looks, he has evolved as a communicative and expressive musical personality. Always an admirable and admired technician, Lacombe brought great rhythmic verve and vitality as well as dynamic contrasts to Berlioz’s swashbuckling overture, which he conducted by heart. Would that his violin sections had shown the same level of energy and commitment. Nonetheless, Lacombe won through with a reading that glowed with pointed accents and a near-epic sweep. This reading ultimately emerged victorious with an irrepressible sense of Romantic conviction.

Serge Arcuri is one of Quebec and Canada’s more individual composers. He has developed a highly personal musical voice in a variety of musical styles, ranging from electro-acoustic to film and television scores. His new work for violin and orchestra, Les mouvements de l’âme (“Movements of the Soul”) is ostensibly a work in three linked movements, but is rather a free-flowing, reflective voyage of discovery. Arcuri evokes a series of emotional states or internal landscapes much like the visual artist Jean-Paul Riopelle, whom Arcuri cites as a direct influence. Despite a textured and restrained use of orchestral colours, the work is an intimate, almost whispered depiction of emotional atmospheres.

Often beautiful in its haunting lyricism and brooding contemplation, the work was dedicated to and performed by the OSM concertmaster, Andrew Wan. From the solo cadenza that opens the work to the questioning diminuendi at its conclusion, Wan’s refined and highly expressive performance ideally caught the reflective, almost mystical quality of Arcuri’s writing. He was fortunate to be aided and abetted by Lacombe’s balanced and subtle accompaniment.

Wan next returned for a spirited performance of Maurice Ravel’s Tzigane. The contrast with the Arcuri piece was striking and, perhaps unfairly, the Ravel work sounded the more modern in its use of rhythmic variety, a pungent harmonic language and a still-inspring range of orchestral colour. Here again, Wan’s playing was never less than admirable and the work’s virtuoso technical difficulties from double-stops to harmonics were adroitly performed. Once again Lacombe revealed himself to be a natural partner and the mix of gypsy spirit and French orchestral perfume was admirably rendered.

The concert concluded with a performance of Dvořák’s beloved Symphony no. 9, “From the New World”. It was perhaps here that Lacombe’s command of internal contrasts and dynamic control was most impressive. The opening movement was rhythmically alert, with pointed accents and an almost driven musical momentum that never sacrificed either line or tonal richness. After a sketchy opening, the Largo progressed from one effective woodwind solo to the next whilst transitions were never allowed to become either laboured or mannered. In the symphony’s final movement, where Dvořák’s home-grown folk idioms mix so effectively with American folksong, Lacombe refused to be defeated by the first violins’ lacklustre articulation and implication. Rather he headed full throttle towards a searing climax in a reading that averted all traces of sentimentality and overt emotionalism and underscored this masterpiece’s underlying harmonic richness and its structural effectiveness. Lacombe’s look of contentment as he turned to greet the audience’s roar of approval at the concert’s conclusion was most eloquent. Both the ovation and the conductor’s expression seemed to speak to a feeling of deep gratitude at the return of a prodigal son to the New World after a voyage of internal discovery.