Conductor and wunderkind Yannick Nézet-Séguin returned home to Montreal to lauch the 33rd season of L’Orchestre Métropolitain with a concert dedicated to compositions written or created a century ago in 1913. Nézet-Séguin has been the orchestra’s musical director for over a dozen years and his pleasure at seeing his colleagues as he calls them and basking in a climate of mutual respect and pleasure was evident from the offset.

In addition to pioneering works by Stravinsky and Prokofiev, the program was originally to include Debussy’s poème dansé, Jeux. Yet the recent passing of the industrialist, philanthropist and patron of the Orchestre Métropolitain, Paul Desmarais, prompted Nézet-Séguin to substitute Samuel Barber’s Adagio for strings for Debussy’s ballet. The context as much as the quality of the performance made the Barber deeply affecting. In the presence of Paul Desmarais’ widow and daughter, the searing beauty and evocative power of the string playing not only made the choice a fitting tribute in music but amply demonstrated that we should be as thankful as the orchestra itself for the Desmarais family’s generosity and patronage. More moving still was Nézet-Séguin’s reverential, almost mystical, urging of his forces to combine in a collective sonority and textured musicality that bore witness to this tribute’s conclusive simplicity of purpose.

The program returned to its original order and vocation with a performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s futuristic Piano Concerto no. 2. This too is a tribute of sorts, for Prokofiev dedicated it to the memory of his friend Maximilian Schmidthof who had recently commited suicide. Nézet-Séguin’s invitation to the young Italian pianist, Beatrice Rana to return to Montréal where she had won first prize in the 2011 Montreal International Musical Competition was inspired. Rana, who won second prize in the 2013 Van Cliburn Competition, is, like her teacher Benedetto Lupo, a pianist of powerful personality and musical lucidity. There is in her playing a free-flowing virtuosity (certainly required in this work) that is allied to a richly nuanced sonority and an uncanny sense of atmosphere that make her interpretations both intriguing and memorable. Her playing, especially in the concerto’s three monstrous cadenzas, was by turns haunting and urgent, powerful yet reasoned, the phrasing as convincing as the interpretation’s musical impulsion was irrepressible. Though she captured the work’s mordant sarcasm and percussive quality it was never at the cost of tonal coherency. (She demonstrated the same characteristics in an encore which had her conductor sitting incognito among his players). Prokofiev never accepted Schmidthof’s death and the concerto’s eerie opening seems unequivocal in its threatening, almost bitter rejection of the inevitable. The performance was espeically notable for the complete sense of complicity exercised by Nézet-Séguin who goaded and prodded a performance of real unity, character and distinction from his orchestra. It was indeed a performance of galvanizing energy and brilliance by all concerned.

Nézet-Séguin has always demonstrated tremendous faith in his charges and has often set them calculated but considerable challenges. After excursions into Mahler and Bruckner, Nézet-Séguin chose to close this season-opening concert with one of the repertoire’s major benchmarks; Stravinsky’s revolutionary Rite of Spring. The third and final installment of a ballet triptyph that also included Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1912), Rite of Spring constructed, in a real sense, a new musical vocabulary not only for the world of ballet but for music at the beginning of the twentieth century. In his customary opening remarks Nézet-Séguin talked of the organic nature of this work, its evocation of basic, primal, almost animal, instincts. He also underlined that the work was fundamentally a ballet and the resulting performance revelled in both the organic nature and the dance dimensions of the piece. The combined 95 players, with cellos and violas in the centre and the violins flanking them, gave the conductor as committed a performance as they could muster. Though sometimes cruelly exposed and very occasionally overmatched, they nonetheless followed their chief architect in delivering a performance of commanding rhythmic drive and elemental pulsation. While never losing his fil-conducteur, (his underlying sense of unity), Nézet-Séguin revealed layers of contrasts within the score such as the first act’s climatic “Dance of the Earth” which was as driven and impulsive as the second act’s “Mystic Circles of the Young Girls” was molded into arcs of entwining lyricism. Nézet-Séguin’s intense and enveloping physicality and implication was apparent from the first to last bar but his sense of overall shape and form was what impressed even more. The “Sacrificial Dance” final explosive chord was simultaneously met by a thunderous ovation from the public and Nézet-Séguin’s joyous applause of his orchestral colleagues. The warmth and width of his smile as he turned towards his adoring public revealed as much about the man as it did the conductor and music director.