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Showing off Maison symphonique's acoustic flexibility

Pianist Till Fellner.

Allen McInnis

The program Kent Nagano chose for Thursday's concert seemed designed to exploit the acoustic flexibility of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal's new home, the Maison symphonique. And why not? The sound of the place will evolve over the next while as the resident acoustician works with the maestro to adapt the settings to the orchestra's natural sound.

We were treated to an eclectic lineup on Thursday that began with Pierre Boulez's Mémoriale, a work originally scored for a flute interacting with MIDI software and a 24-piece chamber ensemble in 1971, and then entitled "…explosante-fixe…." It was dedicated to Igor Stravinsky, who had died that year. With time, Boulez became dissatisfied with the electronic versions and reworked it several times. Nagano chose the 1985 version for solo flute accompanied by two horns, three violins, two violas and cello.

The sound of the flute floated over the strings and horns that slowly emerged from behind it in a pensive, almost brooding mood, built around a seven-note progression. Mémoriale would have been lost in Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier; while the flute would have been heard, the subtler moments would have been lost, and the strings would have melded into harmonic wallpaper. In the Maison symphonique, the subtlety and precision of principal flutist Timothy Hutchins was clear throughout. The violins, violas and cello were distinct as, of course, were the horns. The effect was pleasing, and allowed the listener to understand the work as it swirled through some very lovely transitions.

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Up next was the remarkable Austrian pianist Till Fellner to perform Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Opus 19 on the new Hamburg Steinway, generously donated to the orchestra by David Sela. Fellner helped choose the instrument for the OSM. (The other part of the gift, a New York Steinway, was chosen with the help of American classical pianist Emanuel Ax.) Fitting for the occasion of the instrument's inaugural performance, Fellner's long-time teacher, Alfred Brendel, was in attendance.

Beethoven composed the Concerto No. 2 to demonstrate his own piano virtuosity, which leads some pianists to attack it pyrotechnically despite the concerto's classical (as opposed to romantic) pedigree. Fellner isn't into pyrotechnics. He delivered a beautifully elegant and dexterous reading of the work. There's a lightness to his touch that belies its intensity and precision. The cadenza that rounds out the first movement was majestic. The contemplative adagio that followed showed off pianist and piano in music-making that captured perfectly an Enlightenment sensibility: a desire for balance in all things. It was all capped off by the sprightly Rondo.

After the intermission, it was time for Anton Bruckner's (The Romantic) Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major. This is a work that had no fewer than seven versions, not including Mahler's reorchestration. It is a favourite of Nagano's; he has recorded it with the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra. The version he always uses is the 1886 one. In any event, the Romantic in the title refers to aesthetics and not to a romance.

It was big and boisterous and exploited the orchestra to the hilt, which is probably why it is so popular among conductors. In terms of the progression of German music, this symphony bridges the late classical and the early modern. Bruckner paves the way for Mahler.

Nagano seemed almost to lose himself in the rapture of the thing. Not surprising. It was a thrill to be able to hear the trumpets and horns so clearly and to have the richness of the orchestra, as a single instrument, rise through the hall – although there were moments in the Scherzo where the unity of purpose was a little less clear.

The program is repeated Saturday at 8 p.m.

L'Orchestre symphonique de Montréal

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Till Fellner, piano

Kent Nagano, conductor

  • At the Maison symphonique
  • In Montreal on Thursday

Special to The Globe and Mail

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