Montreal Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall 2004


Montreal Symphony Orchestra

On the afternoon of Oct. 10, 2004, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (MSO) visited New York’s Carnegie Hall with a program of Russian choral music, which they had performed in Montreal on Oct. 6 and Oct. 8, 2004, to decent reviews.

Much was riding on this performance. New York still has a bad taste in its mouth from the MSO’s last concerts here (Oct. 26 and 27, 2002) when they struggled through a program of Berlioz and Szymanowski under two French conductors, the quite good Emmanuel Villaume and the rather bad Michel Plasson. Those uneven concerts (reviewed here) played to half-empty houses and garnered weak reviews, delivering a serious blow to the MSO’s reputation, already hurt by the scandal of long-time artistic director Charles Dutoit’s resignation in April 2002.

Canadians were shocked when Carnegie Hall did not invite the MSO back in 2003, the first time in decades that it missed its annual fall slot in the Big Apple. The official reason given by Carnegie was that the MSO did not have a music director in place. That impediment was removed by the MSO’s announcement in March 2004 that Kent Nagano would succeed Dutoit as music director and principal conductor. So, even though Nagano has had no influence on the band yet, and will not take up his duties until the 2006-2008 season, the MSO was welcomed back to Carnegie Hall on Sunday afternoon.

Fortunatelty, the MSO’s Russian program was well peformed and even at times rousing – offering every hope the band is on the mend. The concert’s highlight was Shostakovich’s The Execution of Stepan Razin, Op. 119 (1964), a powerful piece of Soviet propaganda, buzzing with dissident violins and snare drum marches reminiscent of the composer’s Seventh Symphony. The text, describing the beheading of people’s hero Razin, included campy class warfare images like fleas jumping from the poor to the rich, and the severed head laughing at the Tsar. The solo line was taken by bass Sergei Murzaev.

The program opened with Mussorgsky’s choral scenes The Destruction of Sennacherib, the Temple Scene from Oedipus in Athens, and Joshua. These Old Testament imprecations and prayers were delivered in harrowing tones at deafening volume. The female vocal solo was soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya. Compared to the electrifying choral works by Mussorgsky and Shostakovich, Rachmaninof’s The Bells (1913) came across as a diluted hybrid of impressionism and academism. The musical tantrums seemed at odds with a verbose text drawn from Poe which lacked any plot or narrative interest. The result was “fort ennuyeux” as one Montreal critic put it.

The MSO Chorus was focused, with smooth dynamic variation, but their Russian diction was soft and blurred, lacking the crispness of native singers (such as we hear when the Kirov Opera comes to the Metropolitan Opera).

The concert was led authoritatively by American James Conlon, who will replace Kent Nagano at the Los Angeles Opera, coincidentally.

It was odd that Maestro Nagano, the MSO’s putative saviour, was not on hand to introduce his new band to New York (he was between performances in Berlin with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and the Staatskapelle Berlin). Nevertheless, Conlon was smooth and masterful. One could not have asked for better.

The hall was 80% full, and the concert was well received. There were no encores.

Conlon’s new boss, L.A. Opera General Director Plácido Domingo, was sitting in a loge, checking out the new talent. Also in the audience was Quebec’s ex-premier Lucien Bouchard, newly elected chairman of the MSO’s board of directors.

Political correctness demands: why did the MSO play no music by Canadian or Quebecois composers? What’s up with the cultural policy of an orchestra heavily subsidized by Quebec, yet which hires foreigners for its top musical post, foreigners to lead its most prestigious concerts abroad, and which programs no music of its own land? If Canadian orchestras don’t hire Canadian musicians and play music by Canadian composers, no one will.

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