In recent seasons the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal has had a tradition of crafting remarkably excellent programs which not only entertain, but suggest a dramatic or historical link between the featured works. Tonight was no exception: it was a program united by dances, by Spain and by Impressionism. Most strikingly, it was an evening featuring brilliant orchestrators.

James Conlon was a well-appreciated guest in the Maison Symphonique. The OSM performed exceptionally well under his guidance. Now the Music Director of the Los Angeles Opera and the Chicago Ravinia Festival, Conlon has performed with virtually every major symphony and opera orchestra in the world. It is precisely his operatic expertise that stood out this evening: his diverse palette of conducting gestures was most valuable for its ability to illuminate the drama and character in the music, of which there was no short supply for this concert.

Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin, although through its title it elicits images of gravestones and death, is not actually meant as an homage to the French Baroque composer, but rather as an exploration of the French keyboard suite style of the day. As were many of Ravel’s works, Le tombeau de Couperin was composed originally for piano. The most evident genius in this score is the masterful orchestration. Ravel is at his best here as a colorist, though the actual material of the work is less than engaging. Conlon, though lacking both score and baton, brought a sharp, intelligent freshness to the work, which was played with absolute precision by the OSM.

The first impression one gets when violinist Gil Shaham enters a stage is of complete genuineness. He is an artist of the first rate who seems to play only to share the beauty of the score with the public. Britten’s Violin Concerto was written in St. Jovite, Québec in 1939. He was already aware of the violent and bleak nature of the work, which was written for a Spanish expatriate shortly after the civil war, yet insisted that it was one of his finest compositions.

Britten, at his artistic core, was a dramatist. Shaham seemed keenly aware of this, and was often quite active physically during the performance, leaning unusually close to the podium and engaging with the musicians as they played. As usual, Mr. Shaham’s technique was razor-sharp and rich in tone, without any semblance of arrogance or showmanship. Some thrilling moments in the score included a tortured tuba solo accompanied by demonically trilling piccolos, and a breathtaking cadenza which seamlessly emerged from within the full orchestra. At one point in the first movement Shaham began to strut around the stage like a bird of paradise, totally consumed in his music-making. It’s hard to acknowledge that Britten was from England and not Neptune when you hear this otherworldly music. The work ends in absolutely riveting tension, with the solo violin trilling between the major and minor thirds in the chord. The trill fades away to nothing, and we are left unaware if the piece ends in major or minor – a thrilling dramatic effect.

Debussy’s Le martyre de Saint Sébastien is one of many of this composer’s works that evokes images of the great Impressionist painters. Harmonic blurring and ambiguity can be likened to the overlapping brushstrokes on a canvas. Similarly, this composition is best “seen at a distance”, like so many works of Monet – that is, there are fewer singular events present in the formal plan such as there would be in a German score, for example, which are often driven more by small germinal fragments. This music is more about color and suggestion. Conlon’s interpretation was again quite operatic and Wagnerian in scope, eliciting images of Siegfried’s journey on the Rhine, though perhaps on the Seine this time around.

Finally, Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole added punctuation to a rather subdued and adventurous program. It is a work undeniably Spanish in influence, though not entirely through use of folk song. Ravel captures perfectly the rhythm and color of Goya’s Spain in his orchestration, particularly the percussion, which included xylophone glissandi, castanets and tambourine. This evening’s concert was yet further evidence that the Montréal Symphony is at its best playing French music. The strings throughout the evening played with luscious tone and sensitivity, there were fine solos from the principal trumpet, cello, bass and the concertmaster, and the large percussion section added rhythmic impulse and precision to the performance.

Mr. Conlon’s musicianship throughout the evening was exceptionally expressive if not moderately unorthodox in technical style. He managed to bring out some of the OSM’s most accurate and precise ensemble playing in a concert rife with technical obstacles. It was a fine collaboration, and one greatly appreciated by the audience.