For centuries, composers have been interested in finding ways to place musical signatures on their works. In some cases, this has been achieved by cultivating a distinctive style recognized as an authorial voice by those who listen. It has also been achieved through the reorchestration and arrangement of existing works, as Mahler did in to ‘update’ many classical favourites for his own time. Composers such as Bach and Shostakovich were able to truly ‘sign’ their own pieces by using monograms as musical motives. Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 10 in E minor, heard on this Montréal Symphony concert under Kent Nagano, is known for the “DSCH” motive that appears in the third and fourth movements. The Shostakovich symphony served as the focal point of this concert, the full forces of the orchestra converging in an expressive trek through the composer’s despairing sound world.

Kent Nagano © Felix Broede
Kent Nagano
© Felix Broede
The concert began with selections from orchestral suites from J.S. Bach, which served as a precursor to Montréal’s upcoming Bach Festival. However, this was Bach with a twist: Bach’s orchestral suites arranged by Mahler. This arrangement combines the Overture and Rondeau et Badinerie of the Orchestral Suite no. 2 in B minor with the Air and Gavotte from the Orchestral Suite no. 3 in D minor to create a suite of alternating fast and slow movements. The string section of the second suite is expanded to match that of the third suite, and an organ is added to sustain the harmonies of the harpsichord continuo. Mahler also doubled some of the lines to bring them forward in the counterpoint. The differences are subtle, but ultimately allow the suites to sound full in the modern concert hall. The ensemble’s performance brought dynamic shaping to the lines while remaining faithful to the Baroque style. The flutist, who was the soloist of the suites, did a particularly fine job. It could be difficult to hear the flute over both the harpsichord and organ continuo at times, but the ensemble as a whole was well balanced.

Next, rising soloist Yulianna Avdeeva took centre stage in a performance of Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra. This neoclassical work is an example of how the composer applied his distinctive style to Baroque forms. It is unconventional as a piano concerto and presents a number of challenges for both the soloist and orchestra. The piano part is angular and percussive, not lyrical and soaring. Also, the piano lines often run underneath other instrumental lines, resulting in some masking of the solo part. Avdeeva took a collaborative approach to her performance. She was aware of when her part was doubled by other players in the orchestra, making eye contact with the other instrumentalists in an attempt to sync in rhythm and expression. Overall, the changing meter and off-kilter rhythms were not as crisp and clear as they could have been through the performance. At worst, one felt things coming apart a bit. When the rhythm did lock, the orchestra was able to convey the driving groove of the work.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony. The first of the composer’s symphonies written after the death of Stalin, this work is fraught with expressive highs and lows, from militaristic rigor to mournful isolation. This performance was the highlight of the concert. The first movement, which is said to evoke life under Stalin’s rule, is in Shostakovich’s characteristic melancholic style. The solitary woodwind solos in clarinet, flute and bassoon were performed in a manner that was particularly evocative and powerful. These solos create quite a contrast with the aggressive second movement, which many speculate was meant to represent Stalin himself. The brass and percussion sections shone in this movement, their attack strong and synchronous. Through the whole work, Nagano had a commanding presence, drawing dynamics and shaping from the orchestra through carefully placed gestures. His passion for the work was clear. Nagano's direction was straightforward as he led the way through the wild romp of the final movement towards the strange, sudden joy of the concluding orchestral shots.  

The concert had some breathtaking moments, but also had some slight misses. The performance of the Shostakovich was the concert’s strength, the orchestra shining despite the work’s demanding length and emotional intensity. Despite some slips, the diversity of the program was appreciated. This concert allowed the audience to consider the many ways that composers have found to leave their distinctive mark within their music.