The concert by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (OSM) on Monday concluded its 2011/2012 season, the first in its new home at the Maison Symphonique de Montréal.

Kent Nagano © Benjamin Eagolvea
Kent Nagano
© Benjamin Eagolvea

The evening got off to an upbeat start with Berlioz’s Le Corsaire overture. As a composer of overtures, Hector Berlioz may well have been the torchbearer for the Beethovenian tradition. Structurally, Le Corsaire bears resemblance to Fidelio, Prometheus, Egmont and Coriolan, but in character it’s far more unreservedly jubilant than any of these. That Berlioz could have written such mirthful music soon after being jilted by his fiancée and attempting suicide says much about the therapeutic effect of his subsequent tours of Nice. Originally named The Tower of Nice, Le Corsaire begins, as such overtures usually do, with a strong statement on strings, easing quickly into a brooding passage introduced on woodwinds, followed by a rousing allegro with brass augmentation which brings the work to a triumphant conclusion. One would have thought that with such a naturally euphoric work, it shouldn’t be hard to please; yet the OSM on Monday struggled to keep it together, sounding a little disorganised and diffuse. The acoustics of the hall, filled with wooden surfaces, didn’t help.

Shostakovich composed his Violin Concerto no. 1 towards the end of the 1940s, when he was under intense pressure from cultural censors, and withheld it from publication until after Stalin’s death in 1953. It is safe to assume that this work was his quiet reaction to – and protest at – relentless hounding by censors. In the hands of soloist Andrew Wan, the OSM’s young concertmaster, the Nocturne first movement was more reverie in lamentation than agony. He was suitably submissive, but could have put more emphasis on the underlying sense of bristling revulsion. The tempo of the Scherzo was more relaxed than I expected, too slow to bring home the irony and demonic nature of the grotesque rhythmic gyrations. The Passacaglia third movement was most to the point, with soloist and orchestra brewing the lyricism to perfection. I particularly enjoyed the short dialogues of solo violin with horn and tuba. Mr Wan handled the cadenza, one of the longest in the repertoire, with poise and gusto. In the last movement, a Burlesque, we can almost see Shostakovich cocking a snook at the censors, in an orgy of wild abandon. Overall, Mr Wan’s performance was a valiant but underpowered attempt at a difficult piece. He is clearly very talented and has far to go – I’d love to hear him play the same work again in a few years.

The second half of the evening was taken up by one of Ravel’s longest orchestral works, the ballet Daphnis and Chloé, written for and first performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes 100 years ago. For its commemorative revival, the OSM was joined by members of Cirque Éloize. I can already hear howls of complaint from purists that the OSM dumbed down Ravel’s elegant and ethereal work to a cheap acrobatic show. I prefer to think of it as Mr Nagano’s bold attempt at shedding new light on the audio-visual possibilities of this work.

Nine members of Cirque Éloize, playing the main characters in the story, exhibited their acrobatic skills in slow motion on and above a section of the stage specially added for this occasion, with the orchestra staying at the back under dimmed lights. Such an arrangement increased the immediacy of the music to the action, especially in how the sweeping strings conveyed a strong sense of motion. But an acrobat twisting herself around a hoop hoisted in mid-air, or a gymnast hand balancing on aerial straps, was also quite distracting – I was focusing so much on the action front of stage at times that the music in the back became a wash.

When I was able to give the music undivided attention, the orchestral colours of Ravel’s score were luminous and exhilarating. The wordless OSM Chorus gave the music a rich underpinning, but remained discreetly in the background for support. Harps and woodwinds, in particular, gave full vent to the feeling of otherworldliness, and the percussion added a tingling edge to the music.

As the “Final Dance: Bacchanal” came to a crashing close, I was satisfied that Kent Nagano and the OSM had given new meaning to Ravel’s own description of the work as a “choreographic symphony”. Even for that alone, this was time well spent.