This season’s final concert by the Orchestre Symphonique de Québec and music director Fabien Gabel had an interesting premise: what if the “musical pictures” being presented were accompanied by actual artwork? In this case, paintings were chosen from the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec’s art collection to pair with four diverse pieces on the program.

Fabien Gabel © Gaetan Bernard
Fabien Gabel
© Gaetan Bernard

Several of the compositions performed are rarely encountered in concert. Ronde burlesque, a 1927 work by the French composer Florent Schmitt, was characterized intriguingly by the composer as “an underwater airplane dogfight.” Certainly the rhythmic gyrations of the music convey a sense of aerial acrobatics, while the opulent scoring is completely characteristic of this composer’s splashy post-Rimsky style of orchestration. The OSQ brass and percussion were particularly impressive under Gabel’s exciting direction of this tour de force. This was the work’s North American première – nearly a century after its composition.

Bechara El-Khoury is one of France’s leading contemporary composers – a poet and a scholar as well. Born in Lebanon, he’s come face to face with social strife, and Les Fleuves engloutis (The Rivers Engulfed) gives voice to those conflicts. The “rivers” of the title represent humans who pass through life “like a star travelling through outer space,” as the composer puts it. Premiered in 2002 at Radio France, the piece is made up of short movements dealing with physical and metaphysical properties: fog, silence, alertness, struggling. In the “Struggle” movement, one can plainly hear ululation cries. The final movement (“Song of the Rivers”) ends on a hopeful if defiant note in the struggle against xenophobia.

Orchestre Symphonique de Quebec © Héloïse Kermarrec
Orchestre Symphonique de Quebec
© Héloïse Kermarrec

El-Khoury’s music is highly expressive – deeply Romantic as well as modern – and it makes a strong impression. The performance was masterfully executed; the brass was stentorian but also atmospheric, and hypnotic strings ornamented by inventive percussion were particularly noteworthy in the presentation.

Of a completely different character was Arthur Honegger’s Pastorale d’été, an early work of this composer. Scored for a chamber-sized orchestra, it is quite impressionistic in flavor. For the most part the music is placid and restrained, except for a livelier section midway through the piece. The OSQ performance was appropriately atmospheric. Maestro Gabel was graceful and elegant on the podium as he coaxed silky sounds from the strings and woodwind players, with an ending that sounded Delian in character.

For Frank Zappa’s G-Spot Tornado the number of performers was only around 15, but that included an augmented percussion section as well as piano and electric guitar. This four-minute study in relentless rhythm made it impossible to resist tapping a toe, helped along by a high-spirited performance.

Taking up the entire second half of the concert was Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony. It doesn’t get much more “pictorial” than this extended symphonic poem. Indeed, it is one of the most extravagant nature pieces in all of music, with a storyline that reads like a guidebook for how to scale an Alpine mountain and return safely. The very specific “programme” for this piece (Strauss’ final tone poem) consists of 22 continuous sections of music, and these episodes were accompanied by vintage paintings of mountain scenes melded into a choreographed filmic spectacle produced by artistic collaborators Mario Villeneuve and Christian Fontaine.

Strauss’ score calls for more than 115 players, and the well-filled stage of the Grande Theatre made it appear that Maestro Gabel had that many on hand – or nearly so. The opening wash of sound was appropriately mysterious, with a descending scale leading to low brass chords evoking the stillness of night. Woodwind and trumpet calls announced a sunrise which led to some really thrilling tutti moments. String ensemble was smooth and precise in the discursive passages that followed, and Maestro Gabel gave this section (which can sometimes sound more than a bit rhetorical) a cohesion I don’t always hear. Woodwinds with percussion ornamentation were highly effective in the waterfall, meadow and pasture episodes that followed.

The mood shift in the glacier episode was palpable, with the performance taking on a sense of trepidation, even during the oboe solo at the mountain’s summit. The blaze of orchestral color at the summit was thrilling, with massed brass and strings calling out one of the most memorable passages Strauss ever penned. The mountain descent was truly harrowing in the OSQ’s portrayal of the massive storm, followed by a blazing sunset and returning full circle to the night mysteries. In all, it was a gripping performance that appealed to all the senses on every level.

Maestro Gabel’s well-chosen program of orchestral showpieces – several of them true rarities – proved how impressive the OSQ can sound when playing music as inventive and inspired as this. It was a very special concert of some equally special music.