The Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal and Jean-Marie Zeitouni crafted an intriguing program tonight with orchestral music by four great masters of rhythm: Bartók, Ravel, Boulez and Stravinsky. The result of this brilliant selection of works was a concert as unique and colorful as the works it featured.

Bartók composed his Dance Suite for Orchestra in 1923 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the merging of the Hungarian cities Buda and Pest. In this work we find Bartók at the height of his rhythmic and coloristic imagination, which would be carried forth most notably into works such as the Concerto for Orchestra and the Second Violin Concerto. As is most of his creative output, this work is imbued with folk music, though framed in a very modernistic manner. A newly-bearded Zeitouni and the OSM shined most in the Bartók work, displaying rhythmic intensity and accuracy paired with very careful attention to color and timbre. A very large orchestra is employed for this piece, including solos for four-hand piano and bassoon, some wild trombone glissandi and a very effective viola and harp duet.

Benedetto Lupo was the soloist in Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand, a piece commissioned in 1929 by Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right hand during World War I. The OSM’s contrabass section opened the work with a low, blurry rumble, and Michael Sundell’s contrabassoon (featured frequently in this program) eased in with an eerie, abyssal solo. Soon thereafter, pastoral, Wagnerian horns rose from the sonic depths. All this low-register writing clearly evokes the common register played by a pianist’s left hand. When the orchestra faded away and Lupo’s solo began, one couldn’t help but hear the entire orchestra in his towering, powerful chords. Sure enough, soon after his cadenza the full orchestra joined in on the same material played before. Similarities between Ravel’s two piano concerti were very evident: there are frequent uses of the ‘jazz’ notes flat-seven and sharp-four, richly colorful orchestration, and a focus on syncopation. The OSM consistently played with perfect balance, never covering Lupo’s piano, and yet maintaining a palpable energy even at a piano dynamic.

Montréal concertgoers have been offered a veritable Boulez feast this year, as the OSM and Kent Nagano have begun an extensive spotlight on the composer, programming nine of his works this season. Although there have been unusual Boulez pairings this year such as Perotin, Schubert and Mozart, the master seemed to fit right into this program of French, Russian and Hungarian music. Livre pour cordes is a somewhat subdued and cerebral work compared to his epic orchestral dervishes such as the Notations, and is scored for string orchestra alone. It was interesting to hear a string orchestra piece from a composer who has historically relied heavily on percussion and brass in his orchestral music. Cloudy and impressionistic, Livre pour cordes employed muted strings, sighing more often than shouting, and displayed a kind of harmonic mastery which makes dissonance sound pleasing. A batonless Zeitouni and the OSM delivered a concentrated and thoughtful interpretation which seemed far less fragmented and more through-composed than other Boulez works this season.

Pétrouchka is Stravinsky’s second ballet, written in 1910 after his first ballet L’oiseau de feu thrust the young composer into Parisian prominence. It is a wondrously adventurous work, perhaps more akin rhythmically to the later Le sacre du printemps than its impressionistic predecessor, and certainly more reliant upon folk material. Zeitouni led an unfortunately unstable beginning to the ballet; the OSM seemed off balance until Timothy Hutchins arrested the rhythmic waves with a supremely refined and impressive flute cadenza. Pétrouchka is a rather fragmentary work, and is perhaps best comprehended in its true ballet setting. This performance, although rife with impressive solo and ensemble playing (notably Paul Merkelo’s athletic trumpet solo), was unfortunately enshrouded by a sense of rhythmic instability unusual for the OSM, which I believe was caused by the extremely active conducting of Zeitouni which at times suggested a kind of distracting micro-management. The ballet ends sans post-cadential flair, with muted trumpets, sinuous winds and curiously anti-climactic muffled pizzicati.

The program was brilliantly composed, and shows, yet again, the imaginative and original programming tradition of the OSM.