MSO announces live fall lineup


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The number 19 is a coincidence.

Months after COVID-19 put public arts programming on hold, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra will perform 19 concerts for a live audience in the Maison symphonique from Sept. 11 to Dec. 9.

“Our musicians will perform symphonic repertoire,” noted Madeleine Careau, the orchestra’s CEO, implicitly drawing a distinction between the lineup announced Thursday and the many chamber pop-up concerts given during the summer. “They need to play together, to keep this ability to play together.”

The season opener, a Mozart and Beethoven program led by Bernard Labadie, will be disseminated live on the platform and free of charge on and the orchestra’s Facebook page. Also broadcast live (on Medici and Mezzo) will be a concert on Oct. 2 overseen by Susanna Mälkki, the Finnish conductor whose planned appearances last March were cancelled at the last minute.

Five other concerts will be available as webcasts after the event on These webcasts will require a minimum donation of $10. Many will offer “an enhanced experience” through custom lighting and other effects as designed by the Quebec actress and filmmaker Brigitte Poupart.

Performers are limited to “une cinquantaine,” which can be interpreted as between 50 and 55 musicians on stage. The MSO will be divided into alternating squads, called Orchestra A and Orchestra B for convenience, a system familiar to fans who followed the Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert festivals led by Kent Nagano in recent seasons.

Such modest forces might seem hard to reconcile with Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony and Mahler’s Tenth but these normally sizeable scores will be heard in arrangements (as conducted by another Finn, John Storgårds). Even that great MSO specialty, Holst’s The Planets, under Mälkki, is given in a reduced version prepared by the composer.

Crowds also will be reduced, to a maximum and 250, and appropriately distanced through the Parterre and Corbeille. MSO subscribers, who in 2019-20 numbered about 5,200, will have first dibs on single tickets (there are no subscriptions) before the box office opens on Sept. 3.

Should the provincial maximum for public gatherings rise – not a remote prospect given the steady decline of COVID-19 deaths in Quebec – more tickets will be put on sale. In any case, listeners will be expected to wear a mask except when seated.

Conductors, post-Nagano, are all guests. Labadie, a Canadian, will lead four programs comprising music by Mozart and Beethoven and featuring Canadian soloists, among them soprano Karina Gauvin, contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux, violinist James Ehnes and pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin. Beethoven’s First and Sixth (“Pastoral”) Symphonies and Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 (“Haffner”) are on the docket.

Other conductors are imports, although Storgårds is known to Ottawa music fans as principal guest conductor of the National Arts Centre Orchestra. He leads four programs, including one in which he appears as a violin soloist in Arvo Pärt’s Fratres. This concert also features Weltengeist, a premiere by the Quebec City composer Simon Bertrand.

Pablo Heras-Casado, a Spaniard with no known music-director commitments, conducts a program of Beethoven (Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus and Symphony No. 2) and Chausson (Poème de l’amour et de la mer with Lemieux as soloist) three times in November. The prominence of Beethoven in the programming is related, of course, to the composer’s 250th anniversary.

All the aforementioned conductors will be heard in return engagements. Newcomers are the Ukrainian-born Finn Dalia Stasevska (Sibelius’s Third Symphony and Ana Sokolović’s Concerto for Orchestra) and the American Jeannette Sorrell (a baroque Christmas concert).

MSO director of music programming Marianne Perron said that the engagement of three Finnish conductors in a short span was a coincidence. In any case, Europeans will be required to submit to a two-week Canadian quarantine on arrival, unless federal regulations change. “For artists it’s an opportunity to have a quiet time to work a study,” Perron observed.

Fluent in French, Mälkki might raise an eyebrow given the continuing search for a replacement for Nagano. She will be heard in a range of repertoire (the Oct. 2 concert comprises Debussy’s Prélude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony and Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll).

Careau discouraged speculation, stressing the propriety of engaging Mälkki given the March cancellation. She confirmed, however, that the committee seeking a new MSO music director is working with a “very short list” and that name could be announced as early as December if travel restrictions are lifted.

As for remuneration of the rank-and-file, a revised fee structure will probably be finalized next week.

The MSO initiative stands in contrast to the conservative plans of ensembles like the New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra, which have suspended live performance before the new year, and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, which has cancelled the entire 2020-21 season, at least as it was previously announced.

“The OSM is part of the ecosystem in Quebec and Canada,” Perron explained. “…As an international institution, we are also part of the international ecosystem. We think it is also our responsibility to maintain a kind of bridge between Europe and North America.

“We want to be sure that Montreal remains a cultural place that great artists think about and where they want to come.  To do this, we have to maintain those bridges. It is good for us, good for our community and also good for Canadian artists who want to pursue their international careers.”


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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. Since 2019, Arthur is co-editor of La Scena Musicale.

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