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May 18th, 2011

The MSO in New York: fast, stunning and ‘in the zone’

Posted by Joan McGuigan
  • Article rank
  • 16 May 2011
  • The Gazette
  • NEW YoRK – What do you wear to Carnegie Hall? I tried a sporty brown jacket and open collar on Saturday night because Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra were closing the Spring for Music Festival, a series aimed at cultivating a new, young public with oddball programming and $25 seats.

    Imagine my surprise to discover a Carnegie crowd that looked pretty much like any other, apart from about 150 visiting Montrealers who were spinning purple MSO hankies in the air like towels at a Canadiens game.

    This was, in many respects, the oddest of the 25 concerts given by the MSO in this hallowed temple. Certainly, it was the least economically viable. Even with most of the 2,804 seats sold, the gate could not have been much north of $65,000. (Heck, I got that on me.)

    Never before has a DJ from the classical radio station WQXR warmed up the crowd. Never has a former premier of Quebec (introduced as Looshen Bouchard) provided a keynote address.

    Then there was the strange program, starting with two sonorous Gabrieli brass Canzonas, Webern’s braincramping Symphony Op. 21 and Stravinsky’s asymmetrical Symphonies of Wind Instruments, all broken up by conciliatory solo Bach Sinfonias played with drawing-room elegance on a Fazioli piano by Angela Hewitt.

    Yes, yes: very interesting. But the true novelty of the evening was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, perhaps the last score a New Yorker would expect to hear from the for merly French-flavoured MSO.

    Well, bingo. As hot as the iconic masterpiece sounded in Place des Arts last week, this performance was hotter. The pace was fast, the voltage was high, and the execution was stunning.

    Acoustics? Oh la la. Strings, even with vibrato limited to meet historical demands, sounded warm and urgent.

    The mix with the sturdy brass was natural. Oboist Ted Baskin filled the room with sweet loneliness. Is this how our orchestra will sound every week, starting in September?

    Nagano was an inspirational figure on the podium, his gestures ranging from heroic to minimal.

    The symbiosis of conductor and orchestra was complete. As my guest for the evening succinctly observed: “They seem to be in the zone.” Musicians concurred. “A lot of concepts are starting to cement,” violinist Marc Béliveau said outside the stage door, where a party atmosphere prevailed. “It’s really a different style from what we did before.”

    The public, domestic and imported, rewarded the Beethoven with a thunderous ovation.

    We did not need the encores – Fauré’s Sicilienne and Berlioz’s Le Corsaire – even if the latter was played very, very well.

    Forget Webern and the Evolution of the Symphony. The real point of the night was the Fifth. The MSO a Beethoven band? You

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