Montreal Symphony makes a triumphant return to Chicago

March 20, 2016
Kent Nagano conducted the Montreal Symphony Orchestra Friday night at Orchestra Hall.

Kent Nagano conducted the Montreal Symphony Orchestra Friday night at Orchestra Hall.

The last time the Montreal Symphony Orchestra came to Chicago, Ronald Reagan was in the final year of his presidency, The Last Emperor was Best Picture of the Year, and U2‘s Joshua Tree won the Grammy for Best Album.

More to the point, Charles Dutoit was music director of Orchestre symphonique de Montreal and the partnership was at the peak of their international fame before their bitter bad breakup of 2002.

Kent Nagano has been leading the orchestra for a decade now, and on the evidence of Friday night’s impressive concert at Orchestra Hall, the Quebec ensemble appears to be thriving once again under its American music director.

Nagano’s thoughtful program brought together three near-contemporaneous works that showed the roiling creative cauldron of French-Russian influence in pre- and post-World War I Paris.

The evening led off with Debussy’s Jeux. In his final completed work for orchestra, Debussy uses a huge orchestra but primarily as a palette to explore varied timbral combinations and subtle hues.

The Montreal Symphony was celebrated as “the world’s greatest French orchestra” in it heyday under Dutoit. Yet while the playing of this late tone poem was unfailingly polished, the Gallic qualities were too often absent.

Nagano drew a widely terraced dynamic range and his alert, clear-eyed direction and impeccable balancing negotiated the playful ebb and flow of this forward-looking score. Yet the darker shadows were less evident and despite the responsive performance from the ensemble the hazy, sensual elements of Jeux were left largely unexplored.

The Montreal orchestra may not be quite the first-tier international ensemble honed to a fine sheen that it was under Dutoit, lacking a consistent spark of personality in the winds, and that last bit of corporate gleam.

Yet as the fiery and electrifying performance of The Rite of Spring showed they’re still a band to be reckoned with. If some of the solo work seemed a bit anodyne in Jeux, there was no want of outsized commitment in the blazing rendition of Stravinsky’s ground-breaking ballet.

The opening pages felt rather streamlined, missing the strange, dark atmosphere of unspooling primordial life. But from the “Ritual of the River Tribes” on, the performance erupted with all due fervor, and the violent, driving rhythms of the “Dance of the Earth” were put across with almost unhinged ferocity. Part II was just as inspired with wonderfully evocative bass flute and bass clarinet solos—and culminating in a manic intensity to the final “Sacrificial Dance.”

Repeated ovations brought Nagano back for two encores. Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun shows the orchestra can still do the French thing as impressively as anyone with principal flute Timothy Hutchins floating a lovely languorous solo.  Nagano and his Quebecois players sent the audience into the night with a fizzing rendition of the Farandole from Bizet’s “L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2. Let’s hope it’s not another 28 years before the Montreal Symphony comes back to Chicago.

Daniil Trifonov

Daniil Trifonov

It was a testament to their collective virtuosity  that the Montreal players managed to avoid being upstaged by their tour soloist, the remarkable Daniil Trifonov.

In his take-no-prisoners performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, Trifonov continues to show why at age 25 he remains the young Russian keyboard phenom of our time. His consistency and technique are unassailable, the pianist romping through the fastest and most difficult passages of Prokofiev’s spiky outer movements with astounding bravura and fury, every note perfectly placed and articulation faultless.

Even more striking is the degree of poetic subtlety Trifonov can find in works that aren’t generally known for expressive depths. Rarely will one hear such yielding poetry extracted from the quieter variations of the concerto’s Andantino.

Trifonov’s encore of Scriabin’s Prelude for the Left Hand, Op. 9, No. 1, was likewise floated with great delicacy and inward, finely shaded expression.

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