Vancouver Symphony

Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal

Rossini William Tell: Overture, Barber of Seville: Una voce poca fa, and Bel Raggio Lusinghier from Semiramide Sokolovic Concerto pour orchestre Rossini Tancredi: Di tanti palpiti and The Italian Girl in Algiers: Cruda sorte
Beethoven Symphony No. 7

Conductor Kent Nagano Guest Artist Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Contralto

Dates 17 April 2007@ 20.00 Venue Orpheum Theatre Reviewer J H Stape

If the programme of the OSM's current cross-Canada spring tour is anything to go by, the orchestra's era as a "French band," one carefully created and lovingly groomed by its previous Music Director Charles Dutoit (who left the orchestra in a famously public spat), is well and truly over. Maestro Kent Nagano, appointed in 2004, is obviously taking the organization in new -- and more diverse -- directions. Having earned his spurs in the opera house (often thought the best training for a conductor), Nagano choice of repertoire not only staked a claim but also gave a splendid opportunity to Quebecois contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux to shine brightly.

Killed forever by anyone who can still remember The Lone Ranger, Rossini's driving overture to his 1829 opera William Tell -- lyric at its opening, dynamic, and then over-the-top -- survives in the concert hall. Shostakovich also took a poke at it in his final symphony. Kent Nagano and the OSM offered a robust and vigorous performance, retrieving the piece from weary cliché. The creamy OSM sound was in evidence from the outset, as was Maestro Nagano's laser-like attention to detail. Balanced and deft, his reading proved a rousing start to an evening of revelations.

Contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux has a warm, charming presence, and clearly loves what she is doing. Her commitment to communication was evident throughout the four Rossini arias, all chestnuts from the repertoire. Her strengths lie in the dramatic operas, her Rosina from The Barber just the slightest bit forced. Her top is refined rather than dramatic, the chest tones lush, and her breath control when she moves through registers is seamless. With the Rossini revival now in full swing and flourishing with such singers as Cecilia Bartoli and Juan Diego Florez to say nothing of the Pesaro Rossini Festival, we now possess a thoroughly sophisticated appreciation of the composer's music, and Lemieux was both stylish and idiomatic in presenting it. There was the tasteful amount of frilly ornamentation, beautifully modulated breath control, and a lightness of touch to a seriousness of purpose that makes Rossini work for modern audiences.

Sandwiched in between the Rossini arias was Ana Sokolovic's "Concerto pour orchestre," which had its debut less than a week ago. For all its newness, it seemed terribly dated, a dull rehash of Ligeti aching for greater sophistication but often hitting the level of the music for Star Wars. True enough, Sokolvic (trained at the Université de Montréal) gave the orchestra ample opportunities to strut its stuff in the modern, even avant-garde, repertoire, and the academic complexities of this piece elicited some of the sharpest playing of an evening during which not one false note was heard. Aggressive and full of pips and squeaks, this concerto was also overly long, just refusing to let go. The return to Rossini couldn't come quick enough.

Maestro Nagano's Beethoven -- one of big sound, risk-taking, and superb articulation -- was the meatiest choice of the evening, and what a splendid rendition from the rousing Vivace opening to the driven Allegro close. And there was no loss of detail in the fire and furry. The second movement Allegretto achieved plaintiveness without becoming melancholy, and the Presto movement, architecturally balanced, conveyed not only supreme happiness but was also a statement of grandeur and majesty. The attacks in the closing Allegro were precise to a hair's-breadth, with the intensity and urgency just this side of ruthless. Accuracy of touch was abetted by interpretive skills to match, and this was simply a towering performance.

The audience (some of which could do with lessons in concert-going manners) was given two encores, and poured into the streets satisfied that all was right with the musical world. Whatever its quarrels with its former music director, the OSM was transformed under him from a goodish band into a great one: Vive le OSM, surely Quebec's brightest culture gem and testimony to a musical culture that can be the envy of many.

© 2007 J H Stape