The program this evening was quite significantly lopsided – though most programs containing Mahler symphonies end up being this way. Tonight’s juxtaposition was quite profound, perhaps even more than usual. Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 18 in B flat major was poised like a pebble next to a mountain. It was a polished pebble, but minuscule in comparison nonetheless.

David Zinman © Priska Ketterer
David Zinman
© Priska Ketterer

Stephen Kovacevich was the pianist tonight, joined by the venerated maestro David Zinman. Kovacevich is short in stature, and sits on an almost comically low piano stool, which makes Glenn Gould’s famed posture seem almost commonplace. He was at all times quite delicate and reserved in his playing, so much so that it was often challenging to hear him beneath a reduced Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal which played quite lightly.

This concerto is not particularly popular, and doesn’t contain any of the chromatic ponderousness and ambiguity of Mozart’s later works, though the second movement in G minor is full of pathos, a style which he would further develop later in his career.

The Mozart was pleasing, but it was clear that this audience had a hunger for Mahler. And indeed they would be satisfied – if the Mozart was a light Riesling, the Mahler was an oatmeal stout served with a 16 oz. prime rib steak.

Nothing should be said about tonight’s Mahler before mentioning one name: John Zirbel. The OSM’s principal horn, and star musician in my mind, did as one would expect of him – he stole the show. His playing sounds easy, as if speaking – he has a full, confident sound which can change timbre on a dime and never falters. The French horn at its best is a finicky animal, but Zirbel exudes such confidence in his playing that one can forget all that and simply enjoy, in total awe of the sounds he creates.

The challenge when interpreting Mahler is to make sense out of the massive dramatic landscape. A man of nature, Mahler seemed to paint the whole world in his music. He shouts atop tremendous craggy mountain peaks, or wallows in low, shadowy valleys – he tells a story of the fierce inevitability of death and the brightness of life. David Zinman is familiar with all these terrains, and seems perfectly at ease gently shaping the transitions, sometimes slow-coming and other times spasmodically explosive.

The OSM seemed to enjoy his conducting style, which is relaxed though suggestive, and on the whole promoting chamber music, though overall there was much inconsistency throughout the orchestra. Certain sections and players stood out as being exceptional – namely the cello section, with its numerous soli lines; concertmaster Andrew Wan, who always shows the music in his body as a leader should; principal bassoon Stéphane Lévesque, whose sound can be massive or ethereal; and the trombone section, led by James Box, which was the most consistent section in the orchestra tonight.

The first movement, one of Mahler’s many funeral marches, began unconducted with the trumpet solo of Paul Merkelo. He shined in many moments tonight, though like many of his comrades he suffered from inconsistency. This is one of the most mountainous movements in the work, with a constant procession of peaks and plateaux. The peaks were wonderful, but the plateaux were slightly too sedate and stagnant. There can be at times more tension in these low strains of music than the howling climaxes.

In his second movement, Mahler doesn’t waste any time coming out of the gates: the music explodes into life as if it were already happening. An emphatic leap of an octave and a semitone prevails throughout the movement, which, in my mind, contained the most powerful climax of the evening which shook the walls of the Maison Symphonique, and the bodies of everyone inside.

For the obbligato horn solo of the third movement John Zirbel came out in front of the orchestra. Again, he left little to be desired, and his colleagues were more than happy to help feature him.

The Adagietto, Mahler’s most famous standalone movement, was of slightly longer than average length at around eleven minutes. Zinman’s technique, unlike many conductors, utilizes a conducting stroke which pulls rather than beats, that is, the sound starts as his arms begin to come up, not at the bottom of his arc. This worked wonderfully in the Adagietto which is so full of harmonic tension and prolonged cadences.

And finally, the finale brings all of these motives, scenes, emotions and ideas together and ends not in gloom but in resounding exuberance. The audience left the Maison Symphonique full to bursting with Mahler, lovedrunk and happy.