With the concert season drawing to a close, the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal programmed a matinée concert fit for a grand finale. Visiting conductor Vasily Petrenko, widely regarded as one of the finest conductors of his generation, led the orchestra in Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no. 2 in G minor and Mahler’s First Symphony. While at first blush the two works seem to have little in common, each encompasses a wide range of styles of atmospheres, making for a diverse concert experience.

Vasily Petrenko © Mark McNulty
Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty

First on the concert was the Prokofiev. Written after the composer’s return to Russia after 16 years abroad, Prokofiev altered his characteristic style to create a music that would be acceptable to the Soviet government. While the composer’s voice is toned down in the work, it manages to sneak through in the off-kilter rhythms of the first movement, the neo-classical orchestration of the second movement and the undisputed Prokofiev-esque finale.

The soloist was Canadian violinist Andrew Wan, who is also the current concert master of the orchestra. Wan projected the dark, solo melody of the opening with expressive lyricism over a background of rich, low strings. The concerto featured many juxtapositions between differing moods, from the brooding first movement to the calm, buoyant second movement. These contrasts were also present in the soloist’s part, from the slow, expressive melodies to dazzling, rapid passage work. Wan’s solo playing is uncommonly humble. He plays without flourish or exaggerated gestures, fully captivated in the music. His technical ability was on display in the brisk third movement, whose main theme itself requires swift runs across the fingerboard of the instrument. Uninterested in self-aggrandizement or excess, Wan’s playing manages to find a common ground between virtuosity and modesty. He displays technical control while allowing the music to be the first priority.

The concerto was followed by Mahler’s First symphony, a weighty orchestral standard. Vasily Petrenko was up to the challenge, approaching the work as a confident interpreter. Petrenko highlighted the structural elements of the work, showing connections in thematic materials through consistent articulation and accentuation. The opening movement, with its sustained violin harmonics, seemed to open a wide expanse, the ‘cuckoo’ calls evoking the early morning on a green pasture. The cellos brought an exuberance to the Austrian folk dance rhythms of the second movement, making this movement especially cheerful and light. Petrenko handled the overall pacing with care, guiding the journey from the depths of the third movement funeral march to the ecstatic heights of the finale. In the work’s climax, Petrenko displayed spirit and vigor, drawing on the orchestra to give forth all their energy.

While the tutti movements were powerful, it was the distinctive characters brought forward in the instrumental solos that were the highlight of the performance. There were the atmospheric offstage trumpets suggesting an outdoor scene, the sombre Frère Jacques theme in the basses, the klezmer clarinets and the shriek of the piccolo announcing the shocking opening of the fourth movement. The horn soli section was a particularly poignant moment, with the horn players standing for the solo as, as indicated by the composer in the score. This served as a powerful climax of the work. The solo moments allowed individuals of the orchestra to come to the forefront, providing the symphony with a certain intimacy despite its large scale.

This concert presented the up and coming generation of artists at work. Both soloist and conductor bring a refreshing take to classic works: Wan with his emphasis on interpretation rather than flash and virtuosity, and Petrenko giving attention to detail while bringing forth a youthful energy and excitement. This was a spirted close to a diverse season, bringing forth lyrical melodies, dance rhythms, and a variety of orchestral colours.