Midsize Mahler makes a big impression

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What to do on a sun-drenched Sunday afternoon in September? A few hundred followers of the Orchestre Métropolitain chose to ponder the impermanence of youth and the enigmas of eternity in the Maison symphonique, with Gustav Mahler and one of his notable contemporary interpreters, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, as their guides.

Well, there is no such thing as a bad time to hear a good performance, which the earlier of two accounts (the 1 p.m. show as opposed to the 4 p.m. repeat) of Das Lied von der Erde certainly was. Each sitting was limited to the Quebec-prescribed maximum of 250. Thank heaven everything was preserved for internet dissemination – and posterity.

We were supposed to hear the chamber version jointly attributed to Arnold Schoenberg (who started work on it around 1920) and Rainer Riehn (who finished it in 1983). What we got was a hybrid involving 39 players including a midsize string complement.

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The effect, inevitably, was intermediate, and a little scattered in the feisty opening minutes, as the players adapted to the well-distanced configuration. All the same, woodwinds spoke eloquently and YNS encouraged a spirit of dialogue throughout. The most audible substitution was the use of a piano in the final movement in place of Mahler’s two harps. I got used to it.

Important as the instrumental component is, Das Lied is primarily a vocal work incorporating verse from the Tang dynasty as translated into German and rendered romantic and universal. Frédéric Antoun projected strongly, as a tenor must in this music, which is so spirited on the surface, while maintaining a bright and youthful sound.

It is the other soloist, however, who conveys the soulful essence of the score. Michèle Losier was in grand form, combining a handsome, focused tone with an unerring instinct for expressive word painting and a stage presence that was operatic in the best sense. Here was a voice we could follow willingly to the hereafter. No wonder this native Montrealer has done so well in Europe.

YNS led it all with a sure sense of ebb and flow. The final fadeout was mesmerizing.

At 65 minutes, Das Lied was nicely suited to the no-intermission format. The concert began with Prayer, a five-minute exercise in sonic evocation by a New York-based Canadian, Vivian Fung, that sometimes brought to mind Sibelius. As Nézet-Séguin noted in his adulatory opening remarks, he will lead this piece, which he premiered in July as a CBC radio project with musicians from 28 Canadian orchestras, next month in Philadelphia.

These concerts in the Maison symphonique marked the opening of the OM’s Montreal season. One or the other will be available as a webcast from Oct. 2 to 9. Go to www.orchestremetropolitain.com.

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About Author

Arthur Kaptainis has been a classical music critic since 1986. His articles have appeared in Classical Voice North America and La Scena Musicale as well as Musical Toronto. Arthur holds an MA in musicology from the University of Toronto. From 2019-2021, Arthur was co-editor of La Scena Musicale.

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