Yannick and OM put spotlight on Beethoven — and Montreal

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The familiar setting is Bourgie Hall, festooned with microphones, lamps, music stands and cleared of audience chairs. Yannick Nézet-Séguin stands on a podium near the rear, facing forward, score to one side. Horns, trumpets and timpani are on the stage, other players on the floor. Everyone is moderately distanced but unmasked. There might be some techies in the balcony but no public as that word is normally understood. All of this in keeping, we are assured, with provincial guidelines on recording.

“It’s what I like to call a jam session,” YNS said in a spoken introduction to the Friday afternoon debut of the Orchestre Métropolitain on DG Stage, an internet platform created by the storied Deutsche Grammophon record label as a means of keeping the faith in the midst of the crisis.

The phrase is an interesting alternative to “concert,” “recording,” “broadcast” and other common idioms of the pre-COVID-19 world. As long as it is made clear that these back-to-back performances of Beethoven’s Second and Fourth Symphonies, lively as they might have been, sounded in no way ragtag or improvised.

Nor should lively be confused with live, since the first eight Beethoven symphonies, pair by pair, were recorded in June and July for online dissemination on successive weekends in late July and August. You have until 2 p.m. Sunday to buy a ticket to the first coupling for the fashionably international price of 9.90 Euros.

The look of the event is somewhere between “recording session” and “concert.” Musicians are neatly dressed in black tops (in many cases T-shirts) with the OM logo. Closeups remind us that this orchestra is not an inexperienced ensemble. The interior of the former Erskine and American Church is bathed in light, its Tiffany windows as handsome as ever. This is far from a functional Abbey Road interior.

And it sounds like a better-than-average studio. Acoustics (as assessed through headphones) are both airy and cohesive, just right for this repertoire. I heard no intrusive sounds from Sherbrooke Street. Montreal’s busiest concert hall might have found a new vocation.

As might the orchestra, better known for later Romantic repertoire but finely balanced, in its core formation of a few more than 50, for Beethoven. The fortissimo “ba-bam” opening of the Second had clarity and substance. Soft strings in the slow movements nicely allayed the giddy-up edge of Yannick’s tempos. We could appreciate the cantabile elements of the Adagio of the Fourth as well as its assertions. Both sounded quintessentially Beethovenian.

Pinpoint strings in fast movements were matched by warm woodwinds. Shots toggled perhaps too quickly between individuals and sections, but of course we got good views of the conductor as he exercised his trademark enthusiasm in sneakers and a T-shirt. The wide embrace that accompanied the cascading trumpets in the coda of the first movement of No. 2 seemed to include the viewer as well as the orchestra. Donald Francis Tovey said of this movement that “its brilliance and energy were quite unprecedented in orchestral music at the time.” I heard no quarrel from YNS.

Just where this Second and this Fourth rank among the recorded multitudes is of course not a remotely answerable question on deadline. However, this cycle-minus-one (there are no announced plans for a Ninth) should be a source of pride to Montrealers and Canadians. A Summer of Beethoven (to give the series its marketing handle) continues on Fridays: Symphonies No. 5 and 6 on Aug. 7, No. 7 and 8 on Aug. 14 and No. 1 and 3 on Aug. 21. The official starting time is 2 p.m. but concerts are streamable for up to 48 hours after this. Go to the website of DG Stage or the Orchestre Métropolitain.


A concert is one thing, an opera another. This was the inescapable conclusion after the Facebook transmission on Thursday by Brott Opera of an abridged version of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

The technical accomplishment, mixing separately recorded feeds into a reasonable rhythmic consensus, and balancing the visuals, might have been considerable. But it must be said that seeing these characters in split-screen mode with occasional paintings providing a “set” could not begin to convey the depth and breadth of this masterpiece.

Nor were musical matters entirely optimal. After an admirably powerful rendition of the overture by the National Academy Orchestra under Boris Brott, the orchestra disappeared in favour of a piano, and not a robust one.

The core of the story as directed by Anna Theodosakis was intact, although most of the recits (and, surprisingly, a few A-list arias) were trimmed away. A certain amount of spoken narration, mostly from Donna Elvira (the hearty soprano Stephanie DeCiantis), filled in the gaps.

Whether the intonation problems and stiff pacing should be attributed to the artists or the process (which apparently required the wearing of earbuds) is not really germane. What this presentation made clear is that there are real limits, even with the best of intentions, to what can be achieved online.

Happily, the performance also gave us a taste of what the baritone Phillip Addis, chillingly amoral in the title role, might be able to achieve in a real production. And while I was not greatly impressed by the painted tableaux, the final consignment of the Don to the flames was decently done.

 

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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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