As December arrives in Montréal, so begins the descent into the long, dark nights of winter. If any culture understands this season as Canadians do, it is the people of Scandinavia, whose classical music tradition is known for its depiction of the vast and barren landscapes of their native land. That said, this music also contains the hope and warmth of a people resilient in the face of howling winds and whirling walls of snow; dark, desolate passages rise to glorious heights. The Orchestre Métropolitain’s concert, “Scandinavian Escape”, brought to mind the warmth and familiarity of home. The orchestra holds a special place in Montréal, with many of its musicians born and trained in the province and a mission to make the joy of classical music accessible to everyone in Quebec. On this Sunday concert, we shared in an afternoon of rich harmonies, soaring melodies and traditions of a strong, defiant people.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin © Marco Borggreve
Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Marco Borggreve

The wave of nationalism that swept through Europe in the 19th century brought the rise of early Scandinavian composers, many of whom drew from the folk music of their people as inspiration. Edvard Grieg of Norway, the father of Scandinavian music, was an early pioneer who paved the way for many other composers to follow. His Holberg Suite, the first work on the program, is comprised of Baroque dances, a contrast from much of Grieg’s characteristically romantic output. Grieg added a lyrical touch to Baroque writing in this suite; there is a delicate Prelude, a refined Sarabande and an idiomatic Gavotte et Musette. The Air, marked andante religioso, contrasts the preceding dances with its minor key and particularly expressive melodies while the energetic Rigaudon is like a fiddle tune – fast, fun and virtuosic. The string orchestra executed the first four movements with romantic restraint, articulating each line with care. The final dance provided a glimpse of a less formal music, a music of the people.

Following this work was the famous Grøndahl Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra in F minor, a favourite among trombonists. This is a work of many contrasts, demanding both soft, legato lines and great agility. Soloist Patrice Richer met both conditions; after giving a thumbs up to the first violin, he set off to a dramatic opening of the first movement with great energy. From defiant statements over trembling strings to floating, fantasy-like melodies, Richer projected each line with expressivity. The second movement, marked Quasi una leggenda (In the manner of a tall tale), demanded sensitive playing from both soloist and the orchestra; the descending bass line and initial jazzy feel gave way to delicate piano clusters descending like gently falling snowflakes. Over this, Richer’s playing was soft and graceful, as if it were the floating voice of a tenor. The third and final movement featured the virtuosic passage work of the piece. Riding the energy of the orchestra’s rhythmic staccatos, Richer’s rapid playing was precise and impressive, almost effortless. Richer received an enthusiastic standing ovation from the audience and his young son, who came on stage to present his father with flowers.

The final and weightiest piece on the concert was Sibelius’ Symphony no. 2 in D major, Op.43. This was Sibelius’ show of defiance towards the Russian political dominance of Finland and the ban of Finnish language and culture in public life. In this cultural landmark of a piece, artistic director and conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s precise command of the orchestra was on display; the moods of the first movement alone range from soft, neo-Classical passages to grand fortissimo arrivals. Nézet-Séguin guided his orchestra through the turbulent terrain, pulling the most from the heights and reveling in the darkness of the lows. The second movement features the kind of dark, evocative music characteristic of Sibelius, rising slowly from the timpani in to the basses, then in to the bassoons and cellos. We can sense the troubled quality of the music, the strings like a wild winter wind searching as the brass descend deeper and deeper. Great bursts fall in to quivering pianissimos, then silence. Reaching the triumphant, soaring melodies of the finale is a transcendent experience.  After a long, weary journey, the arrival instills awe and splendor.

As the concert came to an end, one couldn’t help but feel like the whole event had a familial feel, from the camaraderie of the performers to the orchestra members’ children presenting flowers, to the way that Nézet-Séguin walked through the orchestra to personally thank the section soloists during the final standing ovation. It was as though the sentiment of the music of the afternoon was embodied by the orchestra; we really could believe that friendship, warmth and kindness could overcome the dark, cold nights of winter.