My return to La Maison Symphonique in Montreal on Wednesday was a bag full of surprises. The Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal opened with a work I didn’t even know was on the programme; the accompanying orchestra put in a stronger showing than the soloist in the concerto; and a difficult symphony was done so well it practically jumped at the audience.

Benjamin Britten At Crag House; photo by Roland Haupt © Britten–Pears Foundation
Benjamin Britten At Crag House; photo by Roland Haupt
© Britten–Pears Foundation

Éric Champagne is composer in residence of the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal. The Mouvement Symphonique no. 1, which he describes as “a study for a large-scale symphony yet to be written”, was commissioned and premièred by the Academic Orchestra of Zurich earlier this year. The brass fanfare that kicks off the work carries on to an attractive melody on strings that somersaults to an intense close all too quickly, characteristic of a savoury appetiser that makes one look forward to the main course. The vigorous performance by the orchestra left us on the edge of our seats waiting for more.

Works of 20th-century composers are no strangers to controversy, usually for breaching musical conventions and charting new waters in tonality. For a long time, though, Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto was beset by controversy of a different sort. Iso Briselli, a violinist of some renown and Barber’s classmate at the Curtis Institute, was a protégé of Samuel Fels, an industrial tycoon in Philadelphia. In 1939, Fels commissioned Barber to write a concerto for Briselli to première. But instead, Albert Spalding gave the work its first performance, accompanied by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. For years, Barber’s biographer Nathan Broder led the world to believe that Briselli declared the last movement of the work unplayable, giving up his rights to its première. It wasn’t until new research published in 2010, the centenary of Barber’s birth, that shed a different light on this myth.

Whatever is the truth behind the story, Barber’s concerto is an elegant and attractive work. The violin solo that launches straight into the concerto without any orchestral introduction is an endearing and lilting melody that makes you think on first hearing that you’ve heard it a hundred times. After a brief interruption by the orchestra revealing flashes of horror, the soloist calms the water, leads the orchestra in a climactic repeat of the opening, and returns the work to tranquility. The Andante second movement opens with a wistful tune on the oboe which the orchestra picks up and rolls into soft wrapping for the soloist with the help of the horn. Described by the programme notes as being “full of angular lines, spiky harmonies, irregular rhythms and perpetual agitation”, the finale consists of a series of repeated acrobatic moves in the solo violin.

The soloist of the evening, Alexandre da Costa, wanting in warmth and intimacy delivering the first movement, kept up a breathtaking virtuosic pace in the finale, although better articulation here would have given it more lucidity. The orchestra under young conductor Vasily Petrenko, on the other hand, provided solid support which sometimes overshadowed the soloist.

Shostakovich is said to have started writing material which eventually was incorporated into his Tenth Symphony as early as the late 1940s, when he was out of favour with Stalin’s culture police. Even if this was true, it would appear that he didn’t flesh it out and complete the work until after Stalin’s death in 1953. Extended sombre rumblings on strings in the Moderato first movement, peppered with interludes on clarinet, horns, flute and bassoon, reach a climax only to settle down into pizzicato serenity broken only by piccolos. The inexorable rhythm of the menacing march in the Allegro second movement, replete with oppressive snare drums, is chilling – a reminder of what persecution, whether mental or physical, could feel like. The third movement, Allegretto, an interplay of motivs derived from acronyms of Shotakovich’s own name (DSCH) and that of student Elmira Nazirova, comes close to being a song of unrequited love. The finale reprises some of the grim material of the first movement, as the DSCH motif vigorously asserts itself in the full orchestra, eventually culminating in a triumphant climax on brass.

Vasily Petrenko proved to be a conductor of immense energy and stamina. His unflinching concentration in the first movement held together tightly disparate nuances of tempo, dynamics and colour; his relentless pace in the second movement made the face of national terrorism all the more horrifying; and in the final movement he almost managed to squeeze a flimsy sense of humour out of the material. It seemed that he was determined Shostakovich should have the last laugh. In passionately vindicating Shostakovich’s art, Vasily Petrenko deserved every second of the long and rapturous standing ovation he received.