MONTREAL — With my seat claimed and the ushers dragging off the challenger, I kicked away his walker and settled in for another week at the OSM.
It began on Wednesday evening with Éric Champagne’s Mouvement Symphonique No. 1, a collage of sketches too brief to offend and too dull to impress that disappeared against Barber’s remarkable Violin Concerto and Shostakovich’s expansive 10th Symphony. The Champagne did not appear in Friday’s repeat performance — the symphony’s programming this year is inspired.
Conductor Vasily Petrenko made an outstanding debut as reedy guy in tails. Whatever he is doing with that ridiculous left arm, it works, and the orchestra sounded as bright and focused as a Ritalin kid counting eyebrow hairs. Violinist Alexandre Da Costa joined for the Barber. He gave a phenomenal performance that exuded unusual humility and a focus on the conductor. Their concerto emerged with aching, frank and sensitive beauty, the gruelling final movement impressing us enough to demand a rare mid-concert encore — the elegant Nana Sefardi lullaby by Lorenzo Palomo that Da Costa played in an impromptu trio.
So we had high hopes for the Shostakovich. At least it would be loud enough to drown out the weeping after Da Costa. And it was. Petrenko beat the hall like a mule.
Crucially, it never got out of hand. In what could be the best 40 minutes of music we hear this year, Petrenko brought out the terror of the work without sacrificing its subtleties. The 10th begins ambiguously, rumbling, searching for its thematic anxiety before diverting to the cataclysmic second movement. That filthy, wild business concluded, the next two — a risky length to play without a break — are wry with reflection. This is difficult music to listen to at home so I recommend a screaming brass section that you can’t turn off.
The following evening’s reprise of Angèle Dubeau’s Violons d’enfer presented a smattering of devil-themed music with the understatement of a United Russia victory rally. The small all-female string ensemble played fun and loose while Mario Saint-Amand glided around declaiming satanic bon-mots and Dubeau took bows, alone, after each of the eleven pieces.
The program was stuffed with big violin moments that numbed the effect of a typical violin concerto — a rush as the solo bursts out the familiar melody and expectation blooms into release. My adrenal gland gave up after a dozen of these highs and the light show became fascinating.
I have suggested vandalism in this column. I am no purist. I believe that classical music is a living art, but Thursday’s campy spectacle of LEDs, voice-overs, and rehearsed banter was an inane distraction from the interesting parts of the program — arrangements of themes from video games. They were not mind-blowing but they were brave and original to put onstage. This mass classical music has enough potential — especially in Montreal — that we could have had a truly experimental evening based on it.
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