The Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, along with prestigious guests Stéphane Denève and Hilary Hahn, delivered a rich 20th-century program full of energy and vigor tonight. The concert included Prokofiev’s Suite from The Love for Three Oranges and his Violin Concerto no. 1, Ana Sokolovic’s Concerto for Orchestra and Debussy’s La mer.

Hilary Hahn © Peter Miller
Hilary Hahn
© Peter Miller

Prokofiev extracted a six-movement orchestral suite from his opera The Love for Three Oranges, which has now become one of his most popular and recognizable works for full orchestra. Denève, the newly appointed Chief Conductor of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, raised his arms to begin the work, but lowered them again to wait for late-coming audience members in the chorus section, a gesture which elicited applause from the rest of the house. When he finally began, the orchestra surged forward zealously, guided by his powerful, electric beat. It quickly became apparent that the OSM would sound quite different tonight than they do under Nagano’s leadership—the orchestra responded to Denève’s style and interpretation extraordinarily well. The Prokofiev suite found the orchestra at the pinnacle of their rhythmic drive, precision and expression. The second movement featured some extremely clean and athletic bowing from the first violin section, and the fifth movement contained a beautifully refined viola solo by Neal Gripp.

Next, Hilary Hahn entered the hall, clad in a luxurious red gown, and from the first hushed viola tremolo it was clear that another stunning collaboration was about to unfold. It is surprising to learn that Prokofiev wrote his Violin Concerto no. 1 before the Love for Three Oranges, because the musical language in the concerto is much less rhythm-oriented and more experimental in conception. Ms. Hahn’s playing was, as always, mesmerizing. Nuanced, delicate expression paired with an absolutely pristine technique evolved into, at times, a kind of savage ferocity. In her cadenza, the walls of the Maison Symphonique enveloped her lush sound, allowing it to bloom in the surrounding silence. The most delicious sounds in the OSM’s new hall are quiet sounds, and this was proven yet again here. Ms. Hahn was most communicative in the third movement, often making extended eye-contact with the orchestral soloists as they played.

The most profound moment of the concert was, remarkably, her encore: the third movement of Bach’s Violin Sonata no. 2. She could have chosen a flashy showpiece but instead she decided to show the earnestness of her musicality. Ms. Hahn’s Bach was sublime—expression and meaning poured out of each note as she crafted a supremely sincere and honest musical statement which was offered to the audience wholeheartedly.

2012 has been a Sokolovic year in Montréal, as she was honored by a tribute from the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec, resulting in a myriad of performances across the province. The Concerto for Orchestra, cast in concerto grosso form, was an OSM commission from 2007. The piece was dominated by homogeny and sparse counterpoint. Sokolovic’s musical material was never expressed through unison melodic lines—every line in the orchestra was accompanied by a cluster of tones in similar or identical rhythm, as though painting with a thick brush, creating large blots and smears of sound. The first two movements were effectively bridged by an almost imperceptible timpani solo, leading to an atmosphere of complete dread and misery, reminiscent of the aftermath of war. Sokolovic’s language is dense, but not overly academic. The audience received her work heartily.

The OSM has a tradition of presenting very convincing French music performances, and although Denève’s La mer could be considered quite impressionistic, the transitions were less than organic, and the interpretation lacked the kind of large-scale formal planning apparent in other renderings. The result was a slightly episodic and disjointed performance. The OSM rarely plays as well as they did in the first half of the concert—whether led by Nagano or guests—but the second half was less unified in execution, particularly in Debussy’s legendary homage to the sea. There were many fine solos in this work, however, particularly from principle members of the trumpet, oboe and horn sections.

Despite the less-than-revelatory La mer, Denève, Hahn and the OSM crafted a wonderfully sincere and engaging program. This is a collaboration that won’t soon be forgotten in Montréal.