You could close your eyes Tuesday night in Montreal’s Maison symphonique and think you were listening to any major symphony orchestra anywhere in the world.
Under the demanding baton of Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) conductor Kent Nagano, the McGill Symphony Orchestra delivered a standout performance in front of a nearly full 2,100-seat house. The audience was enthralled.
Lush strings warmed the wood-panelled hall in the opening Siegfried-Idyll by German composer Richard Wagner, which blurred the line between Wagner’s operatic work and his personal life. The Idyll is said to have been composed as a piece for as many musicians as could fit on the stairs outside his wife’s bedroom (following her divorce from her previous husband in 1869-70). Absent the usual stentorian brass of much of Wagner’s more familiar work, the piece was delicately done, with appropriate mellow interventions from woodwinds and quiet horns.
Leonard Bernstein’s arresting Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) featured McGill’s Assistant Professor of Violin and the OSM’s concertmaster, Andrew Wan, in a virtuoso performance of a challenging, five-movement work. A graduate of the Julliard School of Music, Wan’s discography includes Grammy-nominated and Juno-award-winning works on a variety of labels. His energetic attack in the complex, varied work was matched step for step by the orchestra, bringing the first half of the program to an energetic conclusion.
This was the first time Nagano has conducted the McGill Symphony Orchestra. Other guest conductors have included rising Quebec orchestral star Jean-Marie Zeitouni, as well as Gordon Gerrard and Mark Wriggelsworth.
The second half of Tuesday’s program brought out more brass, in the form of two trumpets and three trombones, to handle Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 1, The Spring Symphony, inspired by a poem by Adolf Böttger. The performance was appropriate to this time of year: the symphony, roughed out over four days in January 1841, was written in the dead of winter.
Under Maestro Nagano’s vigorous direction, the orchestra produced an enthusiastic, brisk performance that brought patrons to their feet following the rousing conclusion.
“A part of obtaining knowledge is to pass it on by investing in the next generation, as they will carry our tradition forward into the next century for our children and their children,” Nagano said prior to the performance.
“It is not only a pleasure to have the opportunity to work with young talented musicians, it is an important part of our responsibility as artists. One senses in them a thirst for knowledge and improvement, so essential to the development of their craft,” Nagano said. “A part of obtaining knowledge is to pass it on by investing in the next generation, as they will carry our tradition forward into the next century for our children and their children. I am thrilled to perform with the McGill Symphony Orchestra, and proud to host them on stage of the Maison symphonique for this collaborative event between the OSM and the Schulich School of Music.”
As the audience milled about in the large open spaces outside the symphony hall, all one could hear were words of amazement at the calibre of the performance. This was not the first time the McGill ensemble has played in this wonderful hall, and those who have seen the orchestra before were not surprised to hear such a professional performance.
There is another chance to see and hear the McGill Symphony Orchestra before the end of the academic year: a concert on April 7, at Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste, 4237 Henri Julien Ave., at 7:30 p.m. This event will also feature the Schulich Chamber Choir, the McGill University Choir and the McGill Concert Choir, in a performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah.