A controversial decision by the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal garnered widespread media coverage before this concert. Just before rehearsals were to commence, the OSM cancelled the appearance of their soloist, the young Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev. Management stated that “removing him from the line-up was the right thing to do considering the serious impact on the civilian population of Ukraine caused by the Russian invasion.” Guest conductor Michael Tilson Thomas reacted: “It is regrettable that political situations have made it impossible.” Consequently, Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto was replaced by the Tragic Overture  of Johannes Brahms.

Michael Tilson Thomas
© Antoine Saito

Before any music-making was initiated at this matinée, Tilson Thomas, with legerdemain, summoned the undivided attention of audience and performers alike and the ensuing launch of Brahms' Tragic Overture was scintillating. The conductor's slow tempo choices and subtle approach evoked both the turmoil and the pathos of this music. The sensitive and expressive work of the woodwind section was particularly meritorious.

This was followed by a setting of Grieg’s Våren (Spring) for string orchestra. The inspiration for this work arose from a poem by Aasmund Olavsson Vinje, which describes the beauty of the Norwegian countryside in spring. Gorgeous cantabile lines characterised this rendition, a gentle and nuanced approach heightening the music’s impact. Skilfully led by concertmaster Andrew Wan, the first violins displayed admirable depth and cohesiveness. The full sound of the double basses, when called for, laid the foundation for a balanced, resonant tone quality for the entire string section. Tilson Thomas’ liberal use of rubato heightened expressiveness and both conductor and players were entirely in the moment. This was the highlight of the concert – absolutely stunning.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the OSM
© Antoine Saito

The concert concluded with Schubert’s Symphony no. 9 in C major. In the opening movement, the balance throughout the woodwind section was superb. The string players in particular were committed and in sync with Tilson Thomas’ every gesture. The maestro teased out the inner lines of the second movement. The cellos were touchingly expressive when taking the melody. Particularly in the second movement, the transparency achieved by conductor and orchestra unlocked the profound beauty of Schubert’s music. The OSM was able to project playfulness as well as a sense of foreboding that alternately characterise the third movement. Judicious attention to balance was most evident in the finale. The second violins did yeoman service with the accompanying motif. When the trombones had their chance to step into the spotlight with melodic material, the lower octave was splendidly resonant. Overall, the OSM turned in an entirely satisfying performance of this masterwork. 

At this performance, Tilson Thomas seemed to be in fine fettle, despite having recently endured treatments for glioblastoma multiforme.He recently posted: “I look forward to.…  the many musical collaborations planned for next season. I intend to stick around for a bit.” Montrealers fervently wish that his plans will include a return visit to the OSM’s podium.