Many of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal's subscribers had been looking forward to Michael Tilson Thomas' visit. The May 23, 2019 performance did not disappoint. In addition George Li, the featured pianist, was riveting.

Michael Tilson Thomas
© Chris Wahlberg

The internationally renowned Michael Tilson Thomas is the long-time Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony and also Conductor Laureate of the prestigious London Symphony Orchestra. This pantheon of the conducting profession was conducting Montreal’s Orchestre Symphonique for the first time.

Maestro Tilson Thomas describes his approach to conducting as “trying to get back to the inspiration that caused the [musical] notations to exist.” Rather than impose his stylistic choices, he engages in an approach that encompasses the orchestra’s vision for the piece being played, and additionally takes advantage of the ensemble’s personality and strengths. The merits of this method became evident in the course of this performance.

The concert began with Haydn’s Symphony No. 81. This melodious work was completed in 1784. From the opening measures, it was evident that we were in for an evening of music making characterized by remarkable clarity and transparency. The solo work in the gracious second movement was sublime, particularly that by concert-master Andrew Wan, who played many of the prominent first violin lines as solos. Careful attention to accents vitalized the dance-like qualities of the Minuet and Trio. It was a pleasure to hear this deceptively difficult composition performed with such aplomb.

Next came Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto no. 1, which was premiered in Weimar on February 17, 1855, with Liszt at the piano and Hector Berlioz conducting. Of the many great classical pieces coming out of of a long gestation, Liszt’s first piano concerto would stand out. Twenty-six years elapsed from when it was first sketched until its publication in 1856.

Piano soloist George Li has earned international fame, in large measure due to sensational performances at the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition as well as successive appearances at Switzerland’s Verbier Festival. At the astonishingly youthful age of 23, Li now appears with the world’s premier orchestras.

In the Liszt’s opening movement, both the orchestra and soloist demonstrated strength coupled with lyricism. Maestro Tilson Thomas’ judicious attention to balance drew out the expressive colours of the slow movement. Mr. Li was playfully virtuositic in the third movement and a veritable tour-de-force in the fourth.

Throughout the concerto, Mr. Li utilized his staggering technical facility to maximize the work's evocativeness. By knowing when to “get out of the way,” Maestro Tilson Thomas enabled the development of a symbiotic dialogue between soloist and orchestra.

For an encore, George Li dazzled the audience with a stupendous rendition of Liszt’s La Campenella (The Little Bell), the sixth of the Paganini études. Mr. Li’s miraculous ability to vary the articulation and phrasing of multiple musical lines was reminiscent of the legendary Glenn Gould.

This concert concluded with Béla Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, which was premiered by conductor Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony in December of 1944. At that time, Bartok was suffering from an undiagnosed case of leukaemia. He would die some 10 months later. According to the composer, he labeled the piece a concerto as opposed to a symphony because of the soloistic and virtuosic way each section of instruments is treated. The Concerto for Orchestra remains Bartok’s best-known, most popular, and most accessible symphonic work.

The introductory movement featured stellar solos by flautist Albert Brouwer and trombonist James Box. In the subsequent movement, the woodwinds took full advantage of their opportunity to shine. As well, there was some fine playing by both the French horn and bassoon sections. This evening’s rendering of the third movement was riveting. The subsequent Intermezzo interrotto was laudable for both its jovial and cantabile qualities. In the Finale the entire string section, to its credit, met Bartok’s exacting technical demands. The OSM’s brass section provided a potent final statement for this work.

Musicians have commented that it is difficult to hear across the orchestra when performing in this venue. This likely explains the fact that when the string or brass section was featured in homphonic segments, the lower pitched instruments (celli/basses; bass trombone/tuba) lagged behind their section colleagues.

Overall, this was a stellar concert. Montreal’s Orchestre Symphonique will without a doubt try to book Michael Tilson Thomas for a return appearance.