The opening of a brand new concert hall is an incredibly proud event. Community supporters, local celebrities, media representatives and private donors flock to the premiere concert in tuxedos and limousines, doing their best to highlight the importance of such an occasion. More important and certainly more telling, however, is the first concert open to the general public. Kent Nagano and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal prepared a brilliant program for this first public concert, clearly with the intention of showcasing the fine orchestra, international soloists and of course, the hall itself.

OSM, Julian Bell and Kent Nagano © Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal
OSM, Julian Bell and Kent Nagano
© Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal

Joshua Bell’s 300-year-old Stradivarius was the first sound to fill the hall––the richness of his tone and the delicate nuances of his interpretation were clearly audible from the highest balcony. It was just as well that the audience was completely focused on the hall’s acoustics during the Tchaikovsky Meditation––for it was clear that the OSM didn’t spend much time preparing this short movement compared to the titanic Messiaen. The piece was originally intended to be the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s famous Concerto, but after hearing the music Tchaikovsky's friend and student Yosif Kotek expressed his aloofness towards the work and the composer removed it. Bell, too, seemed rather aloof about the piece, clearly looking forward to the more expressive and well-known Glazunov Concerto.

Bell’s Glazunov was, as usual, mature, refined and expressive. He particularly shone in the dazzling cadenza which links the second movement with the finale. Completely at ease, he flew through the quick arpeggios and scales with exhaustive attention to detail and played with an opulent vibrato appropriate for such Romantic music. The audience appreciated his playing, but it was clear that they were waiting for the real masterpiece on the program, Messiaen’s 80-minute orchestral epic the Turangalîla-Symphonie.

Nagano’s skills as a rehearser were made quite clear in the Messiaen, which was masterfully prepared by the maestro and the orchestra. The conductor has a long history as a champion of Messiaen’s music and has made countless recordings of his works. Angela Hewitt’s piano, front and center in the hall, radiated brilliant technical musicianship and Jean Laurendeau’s Ondes Martenot soared over the orchestral texture, the unusual timbre causing many of the audience members to gaze around the hall in surprise and awe.

But perhaps the most brilliant aspect of the concert was the programming. There is simply no better piece to showcase a new concert hall. The behemoth work left no corner of the hall unexplored, electrifying the space with a dazzling torrent of color, rhythm and energy. The audience was transfixed––it was clear that many in the public had never heard music of such original conception, music which sparkles with rhythmic audacity, buttressed by towering chord-clusters which continually reappear in the work. A deeply pious Catholic and admirer of nature, Messiaen hoped to imbue his music with “lofty sentiments...and in particular, the loftiest of all, the religious sentiments exalted by the theology and truths of our Catholic faith.” The title of the work is a combination of two Sanskrit words: “turanga,” meaning time which flows and “lîla,” meaning eternal cosmic cycles of creation and destruction. The composer saw his symphony as “a song of love, a hymn to joy.” Whether the audience fully appreciated the work’s meaning is not certain, but their enjoyment was palpable. After the last surging crescendo driven forward by an earth-shattering suspended cymbal roll, the hall erupted into applause and every person at once jumped to their feet.

The eager public had waited through a long summer to peek inside the impressive new hall and, much to their delight, they were offered a veritable sonic feast by Nagano’s OSM. The building is greater than anyone could have hoped for...a genuine wonder of design and an astronomical improvement to the old Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. Great musicians, world-class architecture, the finest orchestral literature––finally Montréal has been given what it deserves.