Tonight’s all-French concert by the Orchestre symphonique de Québec and its music director, Fabien Gabel, paired several staples of the repertoire with rarer material. It made for an evening of pleasant surprises – both in the quality of the music presented and the extraordinarily fine performances.

Karina Gauvin © Carl Langelier
Karina Gauvin
© Carl Langelier

The concert opened with the two Shéhérazades of Ravel: the poems of Tristan Klingsor that Ravel set to music in 1902-04 along with the rarely performed Ouverture de féerie from 1898-99. It was an apt pairing and one wonders why it isn’t done more often. There may be some weakness in form in the Ouverture, but that's easily explained by the composer’s tender age (25) when the piece was created. Even so, the colors in the work are quite ravishing and Ravel’s budding genius appears often. The Québec woodwinds were particularly expressive with numerous solo passages that were exquisitely rendered, while conductor Gabel shaped the piece into a cohesive whole – in the process making a strong case for this music finding its place in the concert hall.

As for the Klingsor poems that followed, soprano Karina Gauvin’s voice was ideally suited for conveying the wonder and enchantment of these gems. Even better, she expressed the meaning of the poetry better than any other singer of this music I’ve ever encountered in concert. Gauvin was rhapsodically engaging in the opening “Asie” travelogue, casting the kind of spell you wish would go on forever. The second poem, with its prominent flute passages, was equally spellbinding, and in the final poem “L’indifférent”, we could feel the sense of ambivalence that is inherent in Klingsor’s words. All along, Gabel provided deft accompaniment, coaxing sounds from the musicians that blended with the singer’s conception of the music which favored passion without strain. It took this Shéhérazade to an entirely new level.

As a transition to the choral portion of the evening, the OSQ performed André Caplet’s arrangement of Debussy’s Clair de lune – a more interesting and appealing one that features more interplay between woodwinds and strings compared to other versions of this piece more commonly played. Yet more magic.

After intermission, the OSQ Chorus joined the orchestra to present two psalms that are rarely encountered on concert programs. The first was Psaume CXXXVI of Gabriel Fauré (“Super flumina Babylonis”). Created when the composer was just 18 years old, it shows how much of Fauré’s mature style was already evident in his early works. Scored for an orchestra similar in size and instrumentation to Fauré’s much later Requiem, the Psalm was remindful of it in many places. Singing in Latin, the chorus evoked quiet contemplation alongside more dramatic passages. The piece also calls for three soloists; particularly effective was Jessica Latouche for her bright and clear soprano.

For his concluding work on the evening’s concert, Gabel chose Florent Schmitt’s monumental Psaume XLVII (“O clap your hands, all ye people”). This is another rarity in the concert hall, although performances have become more common in recent years; just ten days ago the piece was mounted at the Kennedy Center and reviewed by Bachtrack. Tonight’s presentation wasn’t the premiere performance of this piece by the OSQ: it had been mounted back in 1982 with conductor Pierre Hétu – but that was 35 years ago.

To say that tonight’s performance of the Psaume was impressive would be an understatement. This is difficult music to master, but the OSQ Chorus, mostly made up of non-professional singers, proved itself equal to the task. It helps that this is a Francophone chorus, so challenges with the French language do not present themselves as they might with other choral groups. That the chorus had been well-drilled was clearly evident, with entrances and attacks spot-on. Well-conceived contrasts benefitted a piece that in the hands of some conductors can get stuck on one dynamic level (“loud”).

The contrasting middle portion of the Psaume was introduced by an extended passage for solo violin which was gorgeously presented with fervent beauty by OSQ concertmaster Catherine Dallaire. The entrance of Karina Gauvin (“He hath chosen in his inheritance the beauty of Jacob, whom he loved”) was so poignant, it brought tears to my eyes. This repeated verse, sung rapturously by Gauvin accompanied by murmuring of the chorus, was sheer sensuality as it built to an ecstatic climax.

Conductor Gabel and the OSQ musicians did true justice to Schmitt’s score, one of the most notable of the large-scale creations of this master orchestrator. Stentorian brass and resplendent colors from the woodwinds combined with ever-busy strings and a whole raft of percussion arrayed across the right side of the stage, coming together in an über-impressive phalanx of sound that underscored yet again how unique and noteworthy this 1904 score was at the time of its creation – and remains today.

*****