Culture & Conversation

Of Jungle Cats and Cherubs

Kent Nagano has been Musical Director of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal for over a year—time enough to ask, where has he taken us? In terms of programming, last week’s concert could stand for many of that year: super-standards mixed with shorter works, and the occasional grenade. Nagano certainly understands the necessity of throwing pineapples; with this lob, he succeeded spectacularly.

The program was full, and this reviewer had to be open-minded to enjoy the first half. The evening began with a solo work by Debussy, Syrinx, sung simply and wonderfully on the flute by Timothy Hutchins and followed, unfortunately, by the composer’s Nocturnes. The first, Nuages, was brief and muddled as an adolescent, oboe and flute struggling against bass rumblings. Had the second been shorter, I might have liked the first one less. Fêtes wandered bizarrely from passages Gershwin would plagiarize to a completely weird martial theme with harps. The effect was confusing, and Nagano seemed to lose the orchestra during some transitions in this, as the liner notes put it, “study in grey.”

Bartok’s The Miraculous Mandarin Suite decapitated the first half of the performance with vigour. Though it was as enjoyable as an electric shock, I could not imagine a less suitable piece for Nagano’s relaxed style—it was probably originally programmed as the bridge to Tan Dun’s Orchestral Theater 1: Xun, which would have come next in the program but was removed. It is futile to try and evoke an orchestral piece by Bartok. Sentences are always long. Words cower.

On the other hand, from the physiological point of view, it was fascinating. During most of human history, very loud noises indicated hungry jungle cats, and this induced an immediately useful state of concentration in people. Yet Bartok, with only a few dozen musicians, managed to overcome millennia of conditioning and leave the audience deaf to danger. The intermission was welcome—and it brought a remarkable change as onstage came a wispy, stiff-necked boy.

This Austrian cherub; this man-child (he’s actually 36) with elbows pinned at his sides and the air of a beaten puppy; this totally unromantic guy was Till Fellner, and he is the pianist for whom Beethoven wrote his Piano Concerto No. 4 in 1808.

The Fourth is a reflective work with little of Beethoven’s regular bombast sauce. It is meditative and draws its energy from the pianist, who begins unpretentiously and ends up carrying the whole operation by the end. Fellner floated through the concerto in a trance, his right hand ethereal and perfect. He played through the first and second movements like God’s own clockwork, not sweating or smiling. It was exquisite.

In Till Fellner, a pianist of incredible restraint and otherworldly precision, Nagano found a match to his California conducting style. Their harmony was a pleasure to witness; the concert, a triumph.

This performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 was recorded by EMC Records for release in 2009.


Lev Bratishenko is a curatorial assistant at the Canadian Centre for Architecture and a graduate of Yale. His drawings can be seen at

Photo: Till Fellner by Ben Ealovega.

  • 2 Responses to “Of Jungle Cats and Cherubs”

    1. Kate Orland Bere

      Rarely do I laugh out loud reading a review–anywhere. Dorothy Parker was a master wit when it came to reviewing; she provoked exquisite amusement. Lev Bratishenko has managed the feat easily several times with his wry wit in this piece, and yet turned the feat on a dime & came out a winner: the concert brilliant after all. I can only say I wish I had been there as well to witness “God’s own clockwork”. Next time I will.

    2. Matthew Testa

      “Yet Bartok, with only a few dozen musicians, managed to overcome millennia of conditioning and leave the audience deaf to danger.”

      Really? The piece warrants that kind of overstatement?


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