La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Richard Strauss and Nézet-Séguin: A Hero's Life

by Paul E. Robinson

It’s hard to fathom the arrogance of a thirty-four year composer who writes a huge orchestral piece called Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) – about himself! What’s more, in the section called "The Hero’s Works of Peace" he quotes from his own previous compositions! Then you have the case of a thirty-four year old conductor who programs this virtuoso piece with a part-time orchestra. Fortunately, the supremely confident young composer was named Richard Strauss, and, as they say, the rest is history. As for the conductor, he happens to be a leader who can galvanize his players to perform way beyond themselves as they did this week at Place des Arts in Montréal.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin celebrated his tenth anniversary as artistic director and conductor of the Orchestre Métropolitain this week and demonstrated yet again why he is not only a Canadian treasure, but also one of the most sought-after maestros on the international scene. It was an all-Richard Strauss programme with Don Juan leading off, followed by a set of orchestral songs featuring soprano Barbara Bonney and, after intermission, Ein Heldenleben.

Don Juan was well-rehearsed and urgent in spite of some shaky trumpet playing and the love music was meltingly beautiful.

I must confess that I am a huge admirer of Strauss’ vocal music, especially in the endlessly imaginative orchestrations by the composer himself. Earlier this summer we heard some of them in fine performances by Ben Heppner and Thomas Hampson at the Knowlton Festival. Strauss had a genius for capturing the very essence of the poetry he set to music. Bonney led off with one of my favourites, Die Heiligen Drei Könige aus Morgenland (Three Holy Kings from the Land of the West). The poem by Heine is a very simple telling of the role of the Wise Men in the Christmas story. Strauss makes it a thing of wonder and childlike innocence.

In the five Strauss songs chosen by Bonney – actually six if you include the encore Morgen – the celebrated soprano was somewhat disappointing. Her voice didn’t have the lyric effortless quality we have associated with this singer in years past. In its place there was an engrossing maturity. Bonney seemed to be using her resources with an excess of caution; the voice never soared. Admittedly, Strauss puts a lot of orchestral weight in the way but Nézet-Séguin and his players accompanied with the utmost care. The lack of power and freedom seemed to be Bonney’s choice. Nevertheless, it is always a pleasure to welcome back beloved artists even when they are not at their best.

One of Nézet-Séguin’s most impressive qualities is his fearlessness. He thinks nothing of recording all the Bruckner symphonies in Montreal or programming Mahler’s massive Eighth Symphony later this season (June 20). In taking on Ein Heldenleben, a work that has tested the finest ‘full-time’ orchestras, he was asking the Orchestre Métropolitain to do the near impossible.

This Heldenleben opened with a very fast tempo- as befits the spirit of a thirty-four year hero - and in terms of technical mastery, it quickly became apparent that Nézet-Séguin had everything under control. At no time, however, did one sense that this performance was about mere accuracy. This young maestro’s technique is extraordinary – a combination of natural ability and hard work – but his performances are never just about getting the notes right; he always reaches beyond that to capture the full range of emotion and meaning in the music. His players gave him everything he asked for, and the results were spectacular! The augmented horn section was thrilling throughout, with authoritative and eloquent solos from principal horn Louis-Philippe Marsolais. The famous violin solos were played by concertmaster Yukari Cousineau. She may have been a little too careful with her long cadenza, but the warm tone she produced in the epilogue was something special. Her dialogue with Marsolais was as touching as one is ever likely to hear.

Finally, I want to commend Nézet-Séguin for making the last chord of Ein Heldenleben – a trumpet-saturated E flat major - the thing of splendor it was meant to be. I haven’t heard it so well-prepared and sustained since Karajan. Most conductors are content to make a half-hearted crescendo, followed by an anti-climactic punctuation mark. This is neither what Strauss wrote, nor what he meant. This is a Straussian Valhalla moment, as the hero is seen one last time in all his glory. In purely musical terms, this chord must be of a weight and power to balance everything that has come before it in the piece. It is obvious that Nézet-Séguin took enormous care over this moment in rehearsal and inspired his players to give everything they had in the performance. Make no mistake about it. This was a very loud chord but – again, Karajan comes to mind – it had no hint of raucous blaring. This is one of the secrets of great conducting and Nézet-Séguin already knows many of them.

The Orchestre Métropolitain simply has no right playing Ein Heldenleben as well as it did this week. This was a great triumph for both conductor and orchestra.

At the risk of being boring or pedantic, I must mention that I changed my seat during the course of this concert and it made a huge difference. I heard Don Juan from the very back of the Parterre (under the first balcony) and I had the feeling I was standing outside the door of Place des Arts. The music had no presence. Then I moved up to the sixth row of the Parterre. Now I could appreciate the intensity of the performances and hear all the details of balance and phrasing.

I realize that not everyone is able to sit so close to the performers and sitting in close proximity can reveal weaknesses too, but I am making, I think, two valid points: that to really appreciate what musicians are doing in Place des Arts, it is necessary to sit as close to the front as possible, and that in a really good concert hall, one should be able to sit almost anywhere and get something close to the full effect of the music. That said, I and many symphony lovers with me, are ready to bid farewell to Place des Arts and more than ready to hear the OSM and the Orchestre Métropolitain in their new home – a smaller and better (hopefully!) new hall - currently under construction right next door.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Berlioz and Nagano: Beauty & Frustration at Place des Arts

by Paul E. Robinson

The Berlioz Requiem requires an enormous orchestra with extra brass and percussion. It's a costly work to undertake and is necessarily a rarity on the concert circuit. Over the years, nevertheless, I have had the good fortune to hear a fair number of performances; the two best I ever heard – or expect to hear – were both conducted by the same man: Seiji Ozawa.

The first Ozawa rendition I heard was in Salzburg with the Orchestre de Paris and the second at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony. On both occasions Ozawa effortlessly coordinated the four required brass groups situated around the hall. He not only achieved monumental and thrilling climaxes, but also captured the ethereal quality of the work which is its dominant characteristic.

Since Kent Nagano was at one time Ozawa’s assistant in Boston, I expected great things from Nagano’s own performance of the Requiem this week at Place des Arts in Montreal. I was disappointed, but I don’t think the fault was entirely, or even primarily, Nagano’s.

I have come to believe that music reviewers should begin their reports by stating the location of their seats. The same concert can sound very different depending on seat location. This is especially true of a work like the Berlioz Requiem. Berlioz’ concept was for a large chorus and orchestra to be positioned in their usual places on stage, with four brass groups stationed around the hall. In Place des Arts, for this performance, there were brass ensembles placed on either side of the main floor (Parterre). The other two groups were placed at the first balcony level (Corbeille) at the very front of the two aisles. Anyone sitting on the ground floor about half way back probably got a very good sense of what Berlioz had in mind.

In the Dies Irae movement – specifically, the section called Tuba mirum ("Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth") – the brass groups let loose a barrage of fanfares suggesting the majesty and terror of the day of judgement. Berlioz’ music is cleverly conceived to be at once powerful, awe-inspiring, and conflicted. If one is fortunate enough to have a seat more or less equidistant from each of the musical groups, the effect makes your hair stand on end. Unfortunately, my seat was in one of the worst locations for an ideal appreciation of these wondrous happenings - just a few feet away from one of the Corbeille brass groups. I heard this group just fine, but not as part of the whole, and so missed the intended effect. For me, and quite possibly for many of the people in my section, this ‘isolated’ effect was simply annoying and unpleasant!

But after all, these quadraphonic effects are really a small, if extraordinary, part of the Berlioz Requiem. Elsewhere in the piece, Nagano achieved an exquisite lyricism. The choir, prepared by guest chorus master Michael Zaugg, gave him nearly everything he wanted. In later performances the sopranos will probably do better with their first entry than they did on opening night.

The members of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) played impeccably, with flutist Timothy Hutchins performing miracles of breath control. Those famous flute/trombone chords are always treacherous in terms of intonation but the OSM musicians nailed most of them spot-on.

I have already blamed my seat location for some problems with the Dies Irae, but other weaknesses have to be laid at the feet of the hall’s dreadful acoustics and/or Kent Nagano’s direction.

Berlioz’ score for the Requiem calls for eight sets of timpani. There were only four in this performance. Nonetheless, even four timpanists can produce a bigger sound than I heard in this performance. The effect here was one of four grown men beating on tubs of marshmallows. Totally ineffectual. As for the soft cymbal strokes – a magical touch in this work and one which Wagner borrowed in Lohengrin – Nagano apparently added a Dada-esque mime episode to the Requiem. One percussionist was seen to rub two large cymbals together - but not a sound was heard. In the Salzburg Ozawa performance mentioned earlier, each of the eight timpanists executed the delicate swish with a small pair of cymbals and the sound was both exotic and otherworldly.

With a new hall for the OSM already under construction, complaints about the old one are admittedly a waste of breath. Best to talk about what Place des Arts acoustics do provide. For soft singing and playing, they are acceptable and much of the Requiem is comprised of quiet music. A case in point was the Sanctus, played and sung as beautifully as one is likely ever to hear it. Tenor Michael Schade was wisely brought down to the front of the stage for his solo. Had he been stuck back in the chorus, he might have burst a blood vessel trying to make himself heard. Nagano’s tempo was expansive, but Schade filled out the phrases with beautiful and meaningful sound.

The performance apart, I was quite taken with Dujka Smoje’s programme notes. I hope members of the audience took time to read them. They are somewhat academic, but enormously thought-provoking. I don’t recall ever hearing Berlioz’ Grande Messe des Morts described as “an atheist’s mass,” but Smoje has a point. He argues that the Requiems of Verdi and Brahms could be similarly described, and he might have added Britten (War Requiem).

So why did all these great composers use traditional liturgical texts if they didn’t believe a word of them? Smoje argues that “the religious frame is only a pretext for the reconciliation with the finitude of man.” It is not necessary to be a Christian to reflect on the mysteries of life and death, good and evil, and the human condition. Believers of all faiths - and philosophers too - have been preoccupied with these matters for centuries. The true believers more often embrace firm and comforting conclusions. Philosophers and composers like Berlioz, Brahms, Verdi, Britten and Mahler go on wrestling with the questions. The words of the last movement of the Berlioz Requiem – the Agnus Dei – speak of paradise and eternal peace, but the music is not quite so reassuring.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

Labels: , , , , , ,