It was set to be an evening of classical music stardom with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal: iconic composer Krzysztof Penderecki would be conducting his own work and superstar violinist Hilary Hahn would be performing the virtuosic Sibelius Violin Concerto. Perhaps it was too good to be true. Hahn ultimately cancelled, leaving soloist Ray Chen with big shoes to fill. The concert’s program demonstrated the rich possibilities of orchestral colour and tone filtered through a post-Romantic lens. While successful in this regard, the overall experience was mixed; though there were moments of exquisite beauty, the performance was confronted with issues of balance and refinement.

Ray Chen © Julian Hargreaves
Ray Chen
© Julian Hargreaves
The concert began with Penderecki taking the stage to conduct the third movement of his Symphony no. 3. Penderecki is best known as the poster boy of the 1960s avant-garde movement, exemplified in his most famous work, Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. However, for reasons that are not entirely clear, the composer abandoned his signature style in the 1970s and 80s and began adopting a more traditional approach. The Adagio movement performed on this concert was indicative of the composer’s mature style, combining weaving melodic lines reminiscent of Bach with high chromaticism. A string orchestra arrangement of this orchestral movement was performed. The arrangement worked quite well and even seemed to evoke orchestral timbres such as the shots of trumpets or a low, brass pedal. Penderecki’s conducting was steady and stoic; he carefully guided the piece’s dark, melancholic flow. Though consistent in character, the performance seemed somewhat brief, and it was clear we were hearing only a portion of the whole.

Sibelius’ Violin Concerto served as quite a contrast, abound with soloistic virtuosity. From the outset it was evident that Ray Chen was there to put on a show. The energy and drama of his performance were immediately sensed, particularly through exaggerated gesture and his many facial expressions. Chen’s playing treats each phrase as if it were a major event; he lifts his bow in to the air dramatically at the conclusion of each passage of solo playing. He also played with a lot of vibrato, on occasion to the point of bringing himself out of tune. However, his sense of the work’s character and drama was quite nuanced. As the Adagio second movement began, Chen became more withdrawn, showing the struggle and tension of this movement. The energy returned in the third movement, and for the first time we felt the orchestra’s full power. The orchestra seemed a bit withheld earlier in the work, perhaps in an attempt to create better conditions for balance with the soloist. Overall, Chen made for an engaging performer who demonstrated his emotional connection to the music. His performance was capped off by the virtuosic firecrackers of his encore, Paganini’s Caprice no. 21, which was executed with a sense of control and ease.

The final work on the concert was Rachmaninov’s Symphony no. 2 in E minor, an hour-long work which could very easily lead a double life as a film score. While the work was packed with beautifully orchestrated melodies and a sweeping range of emotions, it came across as a bit unwieldy and difficult to control in terms of balance. The first movement quickly grew into a wash of sound lacking a clear melodic foreground. This imbalance within the hall became overwhelming and even bombastic. Eventually, the characteristic Rachmaninovian melodies began to emerge: the second movement’s horn melody over the high energy strings, reminiscent of “Jupiter” from Holst’s The Planets, the third movement sentimental string melody, and the rowdy march of the fourth movement. Moments of excellent orchestration paired with fine playing stood out along the journey, notably woodwind counterpoint in the second movement and a strong brass section in the fourth. Conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier also brought energy and enthusiasm to his direction. Perhaps the challenge here is that the musical material does not lend itself to restraint. This is a music of feeling over intellect, a music that presents one melody after another in a relentless attempt to tug on the heart strings.

With a spotlight on the colours and dramatic possibilities of the orchestra, there were certainly high points of this concert. In these moments, the performers were beautifully expressive. It may be a risk of post-Romantic music that over-sentimentality is never too far away, and in crossing that line a sense of refinement is lost.