Nézet-Séguin, Montreal Métropolitain launch tour in Chicago with strong showing

November 21, 2019
Joyce DiDonato performed Mozart arias with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal Tuesday night at Symphony Center. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

There is a certain healthy Midwestern skepticism that often believes that if someone (or something) is a big deal in New York, they must be overrated.

Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin is the celebrity toast of the East Coast: music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra since 2012 and, since last year, of the Metropolitan Opera. But the French-Canadian conductor’s profile elsewhere in the U.S., including Chicago, has been close to nonexistent. He cancelled his 2011 Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut and has yet to be invited back by the mercurial Riccardo Muti. His only previous local podium stand appears to be leading the Rotterdam Philharmonic in 2015.

Tuesday night the popular conductor came to Chicago with the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal, the first stop on the Quebec ensemble’s debut U.S. tour. Nézet-Séguin has served as artistic director and principal conductor of the OM for the past two decades; in September, the Métropolitain extended his title for life, a testament to the close relationship and special bond of this musical partnership.

Were it a different physical space, one would expect the slender, smiling man in the well-tailored white jacket who walked out on stage to greet us and ask if we would like to see our table.

But Nézet-Séguin showed he is the real thing Tuesday night and one began to understand the spell that “Yannick” has woven over audiences (and the musical press) in his professional base cities. His conducting style is alert and spirited yet not showy or ostentatious, always on point with the music.

More broadly, he brings a joy and ebullience to the music-making that is genuine, undeniable and clearly infectious. Rarely will one see as many (real) smiles from players as on the faces of the Orchestre Métropolitain members Tuesday night.

The short first half of the evening provided a sampler of Nézet-Séguin’s operatic work with music from Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito.

There was nothing polite or rococo about the Overture, which nicely showcased the nimble articulation of the Montreal strings. Nézet-Séguin led a thrusting, dramatic account, the theatrical greasepaint manifest in a reading that set the scene, as in the opera house.

Fresh from appearing with the CSO last weekend at Carnegie Hall, Joyce DiDonato was the program’s starry guest soloist in two arias from the same opera.

Looking terrific in a bright red, form-fitting gown, the American mezzo-soprano immediately put us center row in the opera house with “Parto Parto,” Sesto’s Act I aria from Tito. With fiery, full-voiced singing that cut through the hall, DiDonato conveyed the conflicted emotions of the character, bringing soulful feeling to the middle section and dazzling coloratura fireworks to the finale. The aria was presented as a duo with the Métropolitain’s Simon Aldrich sharing center stage and spinning out equally elaborate bravura in the obbligato basset clarinet part.

DiDonato brought equal commitment to Vitellia’s Act 2 aria, “Non piu di fiori,” rendered with comparable depth of expression and intensity. But the prize of the evening was her encore, “Voi che sapete” from Le nozze di Figaro. Moving over to the podium she made Cherubino’s aria into a charming scena for two, shrugging her shoulders, leaning on Nezet-Seguin’s music stand and playing off her colleague and friend in a relaxed, delectable rendition that was wholly delightful.

After intermission it was on to a big Romantic symphony—literally so with Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4, subtitled “Romantic” (redundantly so, since that could apply any of the Austrian composer’s works).

If the first half gave a taste of the conductor’s operatic day job at the Met, Bruckner’s vast 70-minute symphony provided ample opportunity to see what Nézet-Séguin and his colleagues could do in Bruckner’s sprawling canvas.

Things got off to a less-than-stellar start with some shaky horn moments in the opening bars. Past that, the Montreal musicians proved their mettle in every department: polished, gleaming brass, admirable woodwinds–with especially characterful clarinets and bassoons–and nimble and spirited strings.

What one felt lacking at times was heft. The Metropolitain’s sonority leans toward the treble side, and in this repertoire one wanted more weight and ballast in tuttis, Bruckner’s big climaxes needing to be more firmly anchored on the bass end.

Yet the players were keenly responsive to their conductor, who clearly knew where he wanted to go in this vast work. Nézet-Séguin favors brisk tempos in the modern tradition, and the firm momentum kept the work’s more repetitious longeuers mostly at bay. In the Andante, he took time to explore the inward episodes in this largely reflective music. The hunting character of the Scherzo was vividly manifest with notably vigorous horns. And in the finale, the conductor negotiated the score’s peaks and valleys with clear-sighted focus, building the edifice surely to a blazing climax, with a little dynamic rounding off of the final chord.

This was impressive Bruckner by any measure, bracing and boldly projected, with Nézet-Séguin directing a bright primary line through the score, yet still finding a widely terraced range of dynamics. Still, one missed some of the deeper qualities with both the spiritual mystery and passing existential darkness too often missing in action.

The conductor showed his personal charisma in his remarks following the Bruckner performance–thanking the audience for their “attentive listening,” noting the CSO’s own storied legacy in this repertoire, and saying it was an “emotional” experience for he and his colleagues to launch the Metropolitain’s first U.S. concert tour in Chicago.

With an orchestra that looks to be made up of about 65% women members, it seemed wholly apt to offer an encore by a female Canadian composer. The bulky shadow of Ralph Vaughan Williams loomed heavily over the excerpt from Violet Archer’s Poem, but the Quebecois musicians gave this pastoral ode warm and dedicated advocacy.

Let’s hope we have Yannick Nézet-Séguin back soon–with his Philadelphians, leading this fine Canadian ensemble, or, better yet, guest conducting the CSO.

The Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal tour continues with stops in Carnegie Hall Friday night and Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center on Sunday. carnegiehall.org

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