Maxim Vengerov & the OSM: A Triumph over Uncertainty

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On October 17 the OSM gave a much-anticipated concert with celebrated violinist Maxim Vengerov. Together they performed a masterwork of the repertoire, Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major. Also on the program were Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Samy Moussa’s A Globe itself infolding, for organ and orchestra. Notably, the following evening the same musicians played the same program at New York City’s Carnegie Hall.

Happily for the Montreal performance the Maison symphonique was packed and the audience fully engaged. One of the best artistic decisions of the night was taken before the concert even began: the order of the program was changed so that the Moussa came first, followed by the Bartók, with the Brahms concerto last. Played this way, the music went from minimalist to colourist to a full-blown deployment of orchestral resources in a very satisfying escalation of sound.

All three of these pieces are fine, evocative works, and in the main the orchestra played them brilliantly. A Globe itself infolding is a haunting mediation in which sustained, subdued tones in multiple colours are exchanged between organ and orchestra. The piece is a new one, premiered by the OSM in 2014. Both composer Moussa and organist Jean-Willy Kunz are Montrealers, adding a feeling of local pride to the performance.

Although my companion and I were not previously familiar with the Concerto for Orchestra, it is a well-known work in five related parts. We found it to be more like a series of tone poems than a symphony; it has many passages of outstanding beauty.

Oh the soloists of the OSM! The principal players gave us an astonishing range of sounds, including a hushed pianissimo from the piccolo, once thought to be impossible. Here maestro Nagano was at his best, specifying colours, dynamics, and rhythmic changes with great precision. (It must be noted, however, that the playing was not flawless. At one point Nagano shook his head furiously from side to side, trying to bring an errant section back into line). As my companion pointed out, the audience remained particularly rapt for this performance. We and many others sat forward in our seats, intent on hearing how the music unfolded. In fact Bartók steadily raises the excitement, with the final movement being close to the sound of a full symphony. A revelation for this listener.

After the entr’acte, the main work and the main collaboration of the evening. Maxim Vengerov began playing the violin as a young child, and he started winning prizes as a slightly older child. He is a musical force of nature despite being physically small. He has played the Brahms concerto — Brahms’ only one for violin — literally thousands of times. The work itself is a triumph of romantic classical music that most concert-goers already know and love. What could Vengerov do, what would he do, to make it fresh again with Nagano and company?

Well, to this listener it was interesting indeed, but perhaps not for the expected reasons. First, the opening bars of the first movement seemed noticeably too fast. What was Nagano’s plan? We soon found out — it was the soloist who was pushing for a faster tempo. Second, Vengerov played some of his passages with an unusual pianissimo, meaning that the conductor needed to hush his orchestra equally to allow the soloist to be heard. Finally, it struck me that Vengerov was not quite comfortable with his sound. Perhaps something about the hall, or something about his Stradivarius. At any rate, he seemed to need a bit of time to find his groove and play with his accustomed confidence and vigour.

But the music was glorious nonetheless. By the time the soloist reached the cadenza late in the first movement, he was back in top form, practically urging the audience to weep along with the plaint of his violin. And it was a terrifically difficult solo that he chose, full of double-stops and manic bowing. Even members of the orchestra appeared to be transported deep into the Russian’s (presumably tragic) soul.

The slow second movement, lyric and beautiful, opened with some orchestral confusion. Theodore Baskin on oboe took the long gorgeous solo with his usual mastery, but the orchestra was somewhat too loud, muffling the magic. As this problem recurred at many points, I had to wonder if the orchestra lacked one full rehearsal before taking the music public. Or, as I asked my companion, were we Montrealers being treated to a dress rehearsal for the New York concert?

The third and final movement is Brahms’ glorious dance, “fast but not too lively” as per the composer’s wishes. I am happy to say that both the orchestra and Mr Vengerov threw themselves into it with full force, the soloist drawing extraordinary volume and resonance from his instrument. Despite slight differences of opinion between soloist and conductor, the entire on-stage gang reached a deeply satisfying crescendo and stabbing finish to end the evening’s program.

During the thunderous applause, Nagano leaned down from his podium and hugged Vengerov with some intensity. To my mind it was an embrace not only of joy but also of relief, that they had delivered a thrilling performance with only minor missteps. How many serious things could have gone wrong but didn’t!

The audience wanted an encore of course, and the co-conspirators on stage replied with a piece of sticky sugar, the meditation from Massenet’s opera Thaïs. It was a climb-down from the Brahms, but many in the audience seemed pleased to exchange such intensity for a bit of light-hearted romance.

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