The more intriguing a piece's title, the more interesting the endeavour to explore its connection to the compositional process. The Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, under Kent Nagano, opened their Edinburgh Festival concert with a shimmering piece by Tōro Takemitsu (1930-1996). It's title, A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden (1977) refers less to a pentagon in the Euclidean sense than to a pentacle, or 5-point star. Having seen Man Ray's photograph of Marcel Duchamp's star-shaped tonsure, Takemitsu dreamt of a flock of white birds, led by a single black bird, homing in on a star-shaped garden. Some believe that Duchamp's stellar coiffure refers to a symbol of Venus – a 5-petalled rose - itself referring to his pun-based, feminine alter-ego Erose Sélavy (Eros c'est la vie). The question is, by what method might a composer turn such an image into sound? Unsurprisingly, the number 5 is key. There is material based on the central, black note, pentatonic (5-note) scale of F# - in fact the pentatonic scales based on each of its five notes. The central F# drone is a daring diminished 5th from the white note key of C, in which key the opening melody is based. Seated in the Usher Hall, what came across was neither maths nor transparent process, but sensuous sound and enchanting orchestration from this largely self-taught and cinematically oriented composer – imdb.com cites 90 film scores! The presence of two harps – stage right – certainly caught my eye and ear. What took my breath away, however, was a magical passage of string writing about 2 ½ minutes into the piece. Throughout, the orchestra felt finely tuned and alive to every nuance of this shape-shifting music. I thought it a daring piece of programming – a far reach from the classic overture/concerto/symphony format.

© Felix Broede
© Felix Broede

Were I prone to paranoia, I'd have feared that the opening words of the first Rückert Lieder were aimed at my probing into Takemitsu's working methods: Look not into my songs! And again in line six, Your curiosity is a betrayal! I say 'first' but Mahler (1860-1911) never perceived these Lieder as a set with a fixed order. There was a tangential thematic link to the Takemitsu, which I hadn't realised until reading Calum McDonald's excellent programme note: Rückert was something of an authority on oriental poetry and, in addition to translating a huge body of work, had imported a new aesthetic of imagery into German lyric poetry. Mezzo-soprano, Waltraud Meier's operatic background came over in her tastefully dramatic rendering of these five lovely songs. The same could be said of Nagano who, alive to Ms Meier's every breath, shaped the beautiful orchestral colouring around her dramatic and lyrical needs. It always surprises me that musical educators choose symphonic works to prove how indispensable a conductor is to an orchestra. I should imagine that positioning an expressive singer in front of a large orchestra, without sensitive mediation such as Nagano's, would prove the point in a few bars. The audience responded very warmly to Ms Meier's performance and she seemed touched by their affection.

Stravinsky's late recruitment to The Firebird is one of the great career break stories of all time. Tcherepinn's resignation, Liadov's lack of urgency and Glazunov's disinclination to become involved - and Stravinsky's own professionalism and inventiveness - resulted in overnight acclaim for the young composer. His own acclaim for Requiem for Strings resulted in a similar transformation in the life of the young Takemitsu in 1959. A tour de force of orchestration, Stravinsky out-harped Takemitsu to the tune of one. One nice touch was the use of three off-stage trumpets which, this particular evening, sounded out from behind the audience causing a few heads to turn. Delicate and triumphant by turn, the playing of this 1910 complete ballet (as opposed to the later Suites) was outstanding and brought the house down.

After several curtain calls the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal thanked the audience with an encore – a sensitive and lyrical performance of Fauré's Sicilienne from Pelléas et Mélisande. I was just thinking, during the applause which followed, how nice a touch it was to settle the audience with something gentle when, without announcement, the orchestra exploded into Le Corsaire by Berlioz. The musicians appeared to enjoy this riotous knees-up as much as the audience. This was a fantastic performance of a wonderful programme and the orchestra looked really happy at the end of the evening.