Even in the middle of a pandemic, Yannick Nézet-Séguin remains the busiest man in classical music. After launching the digital fall season of the Philadelphia Orchestra earlier this week – and, of course, addressing the full cancellation of his other US artistic home, the Metropolitan Opera, on social media – Nézet-Séguin returned to his birth city of Montreal to lead a live performance with the Orchestre Métropolitain, of which he is music director for life. The afternoon concert on 2nd October was broadcast internationally; the program combined two of the maestro’s strongest suits: Mahler and contemporary music.

Frédéric Antoun
© Helen Tansey

The still relatively young Orchestre Métropolitain has a chamber-like sound, which suits Mahler in general; even when the composer wrote at his most grand, his music is delicately detailed and precise. Their style fit the orchestral reduction of Das Lied von der Erde by Schoenberg and Riehn like a glove. Jennifer Boudages’ piano solos alone, particularly in Der Abschied, conveyed the heft of entire orchestral sections. Nézet-Séguin drew refined playing throughout the ranks, with airy strings in the Alpine-tinged tenor solos, and elegant flute, clarinet, oboe and bassoon contributions.

The two Quebecois soloists, Frédéric Antoun and Michèle Losier, have lighter voices than one might expect to hear in this music. But without a massive orchestra to project over, both hit their stride. Antoun summoned heft when needed, but he also crafted remarkably clean lines throughout – refreshing when you’re used to barking Heldentenors. When an outburst came, it signalled genuine emotion. The repeated refrain “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod” sounded especially chilling coming from such a fresh, youthful voice. Losier’s essentially lyric mezzo didn’t offer optimal variety of color throughout, but she built to a near-ecstatic finish in Der Abschied that suggested religious transfiguration.

The concert opened with Prayer, a commissioned work by Canadian composer Vivian Fung that expressed the unique emotional turbulence brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. In remarks that volleyed between French and English, Nézet-Séguin explained that Fung drew on the concept of faith when conceptualizing the five-minute work – in religion, humanity, resilience and music. The composition began with the orchestra seemingly tuning up after a long silence, then married a lyric mystical quality to a slightly atonal contemporary sound. (Fung listed Hildegard von Bingen as her chief influence.) Although it resolved somewhat abruptly, Prayer deeply conveyed the power of music in times of turmoil, a feeling made manifest by Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra.

This performance was reviewed from the OM video stream