Might catch on, this idea of attending concerts in person. Such is my prediction after Yannick Nézet-Séguin and his Orchestre Métropolitain performed in the Maison symphonique on March 27, the day after such events became legal in Montreal.
There were 250 well-distanced people in this hall that in better times accommodates more than 2,000. The outpouring of love made it a sellout in spirit. Getting in and out of the place involved a bit of a rigmarole – I was advised by security before entering that I was wearing my mask inside-out – and with no printed program to consult I was reduced to making notes on a supermarket receipt that I was lucky enough to find in my backpack.
It should be said that what appeared to be the timely seizure of an opportunity by the OM was more a matter of luck, the orchestra having booked the hall for the continuation of a four-concert Brahms cycle that began a little more than two weeks ago online. The main item of this second instalment was the Second Symphony – a springtime work, as YNS reminded us in his upbeat spoken introduction, although there were touches of summertime in his treatment of the opening movement, the Allegro non troppo marking interpreted broadly.
Strings had a nice bloom. Yet the turbulent central sections of the otherwise well-behaved middle movements were given full value. We felt that we had heard an all-encompassing performance, especially after the exuberant finale (performed attacca). This was convincing both on a technical level and as an expression of sheer joy. Dressed in a colourful shirt, Yannick was at his most physically animated. He did not use a score. How could he have found time to turn the pages?
The concert began with Umoja, Anthem for Unity by Valerie Coleman, a native of Louisville, Kentucky. YNS gave the world premiere of this evocative 12-minute tone poem with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2019. It is a work of noble aims – “Umoja” means “unity” in Swahili – but also high quality. Colours were varied, orchestration was expert and the feeling for rhythm was sure. Copland’s Appalachian Spring sometimes came to mind. Not a note seemed out of place.
We also heard the Piano Concerto of Clara Schumann, written when she was a teenage student of Robert Schumann, before the latter proposed. It is a spirited piece of romanticism, full of rhapsodic contrasts and written in an exhibitionist virtuoso style. Tony Siqi Yun, the Toronto-born gold medalist at the first China International Music Competition in 2019, managed to surprise us with his bold entry and never lost touch with the heart of the music. His poetic style extended to his deportment at the piano bench. There was an extended cello solo by Caroline Milot in the dreamy middle movement.
This program, including Yannick’s comments and expressions of thanks, ran almost as long as a traditional concert with intermission. No one seemed troubled by this. Filming was discreet. It did not take long to get used to the sight of the tripod positioned next to the podium – which is apparently useful for hanging a mask on as well as performance capture.
The webcast is available from April 8 to 19. It will be interesting to compare balances. I am not a fan of the bundling of first violins, cellos and double basses stage right. Add the horns in the first minutes of the Brahms and you have a lopsided audio experience.