Friday, November 22, 2019: Carnegie Hall, New York
The Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal presented a program of Mozart and Bruckner on its first U.S. tour, featuring the overture and stellar mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato in the two big arias for high voice from the former’s La Clemenza di Tito, and the latter’s “Romantic” Symphony (No. 4). It was a bold choice of repertoire, and say what you will about the interpretations, there is no question that in twenty years as Music Director conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin has polished the ensemble into an instrument as responsive and sensitive as any out there today. This was evident right from the start of the Mozart Overture, it’s bold opening gesture undermined by the conductor’s rhythmic distentions and “feminine” phrase endings–but the orchestra followed Nézet-Séguin every step of the way with perfect confidence, making the result almost convincing.
In the two arias (“Parto, parto” and “Non più di fiori”), Joyce DiDonato gave outstanding performances, as we have come to expect from this superb artist. A consummate singing actress, you could see the import of the text written on her face and in her physical gestures, but more importantly you could hear it in the voice. The orchestra’s excellent principal clarinet (and basset-hornist) took center stage alongside the singer as an equal partner, and he deserved to be there. In response to audience demand, Ms. DiDonato offered an adorable “Voi che sapete” from The Marriage of Figaro, although the obviously prearranged and kind of cutesy “stuff” between her and the conductor enchanted the audience more than it did this writer.
After the rather brief first half the full band returned for Bruckner’s challenging “Romantic” Symphony, a work that taxes any orchestra (and audience for that matter). It was an interesting choice: “specialist” repertoire usually reserved for the Viennese or another German orchestra under an austere, equally “echt-Deutsch” Kapellmeister. With its acres of string tremolos, endless ostinatos, and glowing brass chorales often leading nowhere in particular, this is music that the players have to love and commit to one hundred percent. The orchestra clearly did that, even in Nézet-Séguin’s at times self-indulgent milking of lyrical passages. If this made the finale, especially, sound more fragmented than it normally does, well, that’s Bruckner. On a section by section basis, the severely taxed strings were superb, the horns not quite perfect but very good, and the trumpets and trombones a touch weak in the scherzo, where their rhythmic fanfares needed to cut through the texture with greater force.
Still, it was a fine performance overall, and with a loyal crowd of Quebeckers in the audience (including three behind your trusty critic who refused to shut up during the music and had to be stared down), it was perhaps not as risky a choice as you might suppose. Given the fact that Bruckner most assuredly doesn’t “sell” a program, it was gratifying that everyone stayed through until the end to give the orchestra the obligatory, but in this case well-earned, standing ovation. Afterwards, Nézet-Séguin thanked the crowd graciously and offered an encore in the form of a brooding but attractive extract from Canadian composer Violet Archer’s Poem for Orchestra.