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Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal with Eugene Nakamura and Arnold Choi At the Place des Arts in Montreal on Sunday

The Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal was in a particularly buoyant mood Sunday afternoon as it launched into Haydn's Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major. The theatre was quickly suffused with the same crispness and clarity that had the city shimmering in the early December sun.

Perhaps the cause wasn't so much the weather as the joy of presenting two of the winners of this year's 62nd annual OSM Competition.

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In any event, Rolf Bertsch, the assistant conductor, seemed delighted to be on the podium and the musicians equally happy under his direction.

The OSM competition was created by Maestro Wilfred Pelletier and Madame Antonia David, wife of Senator Athanase David, to help launch young Canadians and, after a number of name changes, officially became the "Concours OSM" in 1965.

Previous winners include Denis Brott, Angela Cheng, Ofra Harnoy, Louis Lortie, Janina Fialkowska and more recently the remarkable associate concert master of the symphony, 23-year-old Jonathan Crow of Prince George, B.C, who took top prize in 1996.

This year the jury, presided over by Charles Dutoit, awarded no first prize in the Class A category for 18 to 23-year-old performers. Instead, violinist Eugene Nakamura and cellist Arnold Choi, both 16, won first prize ex aequo for the "17 and under" Class B category.

They were the featured soloists of Sunday's concert: Ontario's Eugene Nakamura dazzling the audience with the first movement of the Sibelius Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47, and Alberta's Arnold Choi later showing his strength in the first movement of the Dvorak Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104.

The soloists were framed by an eclectic, yet well-matched array of music. The afternoon began with a sprightly, elegantly paced reading of Haydn's Symphony No. 84, one of the lesser played Paris symphonies composed in 1786.

While OSM doesn't usually reside in the quintessentially formal period of the late 18th century, the orchestra's precision and balance served it well here.

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Despite living in such an informal age, it is still jarring that some patrons feel perfectly comfortable rummaging through plastic bags in the search for that elusive lozenge at that precise moment when the woodwinds are playing oh so finely. One wonders if Dr. Guillotine had been disturbed during a first performance of a Haydn concert when he began to imagine his own exquisite instrument.

After the Haydn, the orchestra expanded for the Sibelius. How daunting, really, to stride centre stage, aged 16, prepared to play one of the most challenging violin solo pieces in the repertory?

As Nakamura tuned his violin with the orchestra, he studiously avoided looking at the audience and cast his glances, from under his silky black mop, toward the first violins and conductor Bertsch. Then he began to play and the assurance that helped him win this prize could be heard through the hall.

This is a brooding, sombre piece with superbly drawn colours. Nakamura's playing was rich in tone and offered a keenly intelligent reading if one that was perhaps a smidgen too romantic in a score that presages a modernist sensibility. A stunning performance nonetheless with the full power of the OSM swirling around him.

Nakamura began the violin at four and is now studying with Vladimir Landsman at the Université de Montréal. His master classes have been with Pinchas Zukerman, Martin Beaver, Maxim Vergenov and Vadim Repin. His first solo concert was given May 1998 at the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto.

After intermission Bertsch led the orchestra in an engaging work by 35-year-old John Estacio, a composer from Newmarket, Ont., who now calls Calgary home.

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Estacio describes the piece as an "overture for a concert that might feature Holst's Planets." It calls for a full orchestra and is a virile, stirring piece, an entirely pleasant listening experience. Challenging, but not too challenging.

Indeed, listening here in Montreal the work was surprising in being so unabashedly cinematic, clearly composed outside Quebec. (Yes, the idioms of a distinct society are audible in contemporary composition).

Then came Choi's turn. The Dvorak cello concerto is among the most popular and demanding in the repertoire. Unlike Nakamura, Choi did not have to lead the orchestra into the music but had to wait patiently through the lilting introduction before joining the tapestry of new-world sounds Dvorak had conceived for strings, horns, reeds and percussion.

Like his fellow first-prize winner, the young Mr. Choi played intelligently and with a fluid grace. Choi studies in Calgary with John Katz and has taken part in master classes with Janos Starker, Amanda Forsythe and Desmond Hoebig. Two years ago he appeared as soloist with the Edmonton Symphony.

His initial phrasing seemed a little strained but he quickly found his stride and performed with accomplished technique and a sense of colour that seems destined to grow.

After a brief ceremony of presenting the two winners with their prizes, Bertsch led the orchestra in a spirited, rousing performance of Paul Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber. A brilliant bracketing of a crisp early December afternoon with the symphony.

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