It's only a few steps across Place des Arts from Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier to La Maison symphonique de Montréal, the new building on the city's central arts plaza. But that distance represents a journey of many years for l'Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, which on Wednesday counted itself home at last in a real orchestral hall.
Montreal's cultural, political and business elite, as well as a few hundred dogged music fans, surged into the building for the first public concert at what was, till that morning, known as l'Adresse symphonique. Quebec Premier Jean Charest and OSM chairman Lucien Bouchard, old political foes, traded celebratory speeches and together cut an enormous ribbon at centre stage.
Parts of La Maison aren't yet finished, but the 1,900-seat hall was ready for its close-up, and already felt inviting and even familiar, especially if you know its Toronto cousins, the Four Seasons Centre and Koerner Hall. The dynamic, beech-clad curves of its interior (including side loges that look a bit like canoes) created a beautiful visual flow, and the distance from the stage to my seat in the first balcony seemed small, especially when the music started.
The show began with a bouquet of works by Quebec composers, interspersed with a reading of texts by four writers, including Marie-Claire Blais and Yann Martel. Claude Vivier's contemplative Jesus erbarme dich showed off the hall's clear and forward presentation of unaccompanied voices, even down to levels of hush that would have died on the stage at Wilfrid-Pelletier. Gilles Tremblay's flickering, expressive solo Envol: Alléluia made Timothy Hutchins's flute sound even more golden that usual, and I had no trouble hearing the whisper tones that recurred throughout the piece. Julien Bilodeau's new Qu'un cri élève nos chants! recycled bits of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in ways that were less memorable than hearing the OSM play in Montreal in what felt, for the first time, like full colour.
The best innings in the main work, the same Beethoven symphony, came in the flowing adagio. The violins' intelligent cantabile line had real warmth, character and unforced presence. Every instrument in the orchestra sounded more like itself than at Wilfrid-Pelletier, because we were getting so much more information. The hall was delivering more of the complex profile of overtones that distinguish one instrument's sound from another, and that flavour every note.
We got more of that in the noisier, busier movements. But it was also apparent that the OSM and music director Kent Nagano are just beginning to know how to handle this resonant and demanding room. The first movement was a vibrant tumult, full of colour but lacking focus. The occasionally scrappy scherzo proved that when you play in a room that offers more clarity, there's less margin for imprecision. The choral finale delivered its big wallop, as usual, with some lovely sections (such as the opening recitative for cellos and basses), but too much bombast. The four soloists (soprano Erin Wall, mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimura, tenor Simon O'Neill and bass Mikhail Petrenko) fought to be heard from the loge they shared with the OSM Chorus and Tafelmusik Chamber Choir.
La Maison symphonique is an adjustable hall: The ceiling canopy can be raised and lowered, all at once or in pieces, and retractable acoustic curtains will soon be installed along the side walls. The OSM's first season in the hall will be about finding the right configuration, and learning how to play in it.
In his speech, Charest called La Maison symphonique "a signature building for the city of Montreal." Architectural critics may dispute that. Diamond + Schmitt's compact structure doesn't make a particularly novel statement on the street, and will never figure on postcards sold at the airport. But it has begun to achieve its main purpose: to give the OSM and other Montreal ensembles an exciting new challenge, with a rich potential payoff.