“The Great Slavs” was the title of the penultimate concert of the Orchestre classique de Montréal season, given Tuesday before a reduced live audience and a camera crew in UQAM’s Salle Pierre-Mercure. Of course, some Slavs are greater than others, but all the selections proved interesting for their own reasons.
The big item at about 25 minutes was Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 of 1959, a four-movement score made of equal parts of martial irony and soulful lyricism. With his probing style and famously resonant Stradivarius instrument, Stéphane Tétreault proved especially adept in the latter area. The Moderato second movement was a veritable master class in the creative alteration of straight tone, vibrato and harmonics, all managed with finesse and expressive intensity. Especially in the high range, this cellist gives you a sweet sound that makes sad music all the more poignant.
The OCM strings were at their warmest in this movement, and conductor Boris Brott maintained a hypnotic pulse. Woodwinds were properly piercing in the finale and if the horn had some rough moments, his solos made their assertive point. An electronic keyboard was pressed into service as a celesta.
Also by Shostakovich, but in a lighter mode, was the catchy Waltz No. 2 from the Suite for Variety Orchestra in an all-strings arrangement by Nurhan Arman. Ancient Legends, a triptych by the Bulgarian-Canadian composer Vania Angelova, appeared in an orchestral expansion that in fact made sparing use of winds and was most convincing in the spare first movement for timpani (Catherine Varvaro), double bass (Samuel-San Vachon) and violins. The nocturnal middle movement included a florid violin solo (nicely projected by concertmaster Marc Djokic) of Hollywood inspiration.
The great curiosity of the evening was the opener, the Overture from Mykola Lysenko’s opera Taras Bulba, a national epic of the 1880s that suffered some birth pangs because of its composer’s refusal to sanction a performance in a language other than Ukrainian. One might suppose the folkish colour of winds and percussion to be essential to an effective performance, but a strings-only version by François Vallières proved zesty and melodically memorable under the (batonless) direction of OCM assistant conductor Xavier Brossard-Ménard.
With no shell on the Salle Pierre-Mercure stage (blame distancing requirements) the acoustics had a bright “studio” quality that was arguably well suited to the extrovert style of this five-minute overture. Happily, four OCM string principals summoned enough warmth in the classically well-crafted first movement of Lysenko’s String Quartet in D Minor.
OCM executive director Taras Kulish supplied spoken program notes. The concert was disseminated live via webcast and is available online until June 11. The cost is $15.