Culture & Conversation

Caviar and a Big Mac

The Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) is many things under Kent Nagano, but its repertoire is never less than varied. Tuesday’s concert was an enjoyable example of the rewards and pitfalls of his taste. It started promisingly, wallowed for an hour and then flew up, up and into the eaves to do wonderful things.

Charles Ives’ Central Park in the Dark (1906) was just that. A short and atmospheric work, it sang like a poem that ends just as you begin to smile. Ives arranged the orchestra as an organ, the instruments moving in groups under the fingers of some giant. A racket breaks out (were there morning joggers in 1906?) and then it’s over and the fog moves in again.

This amuse-oreille was followed by Schumann’s euphoric Symphony No.2 in C major (1845-46), the classical equivalent of chasing caviar with a Big Mac. Schumann’s symphonies are stolidly pleasant, like tranquilized dogs; evidently products of the manic side of his manic-depressive personality. Not that there’s anything wrong with happy music, just that it’s often no good when written by a sad person. It sounds false because it is.

It didn’t help things that the brass section was suffering from bad mojo. The trumpets were all over the place in particular, like quarrelling sled dogs harnessed together. Their entrances were sloppy in both the Schumann and the Brahms; though the Symphony No.2 suffered most since it frequently used a short fanfare motif. When there are only two notes you must nail them both. People will notice. Things will be written.

My notes for the Schumann were as follows: First movement. “Pastoral.” Second movement. “Grazing at the candy store.” Third. “Slow waltz?” Fourth. “The naked emperor triumphs.” Later I was pleased to learn from the program notes that the Symphony No.2 was written for King Oscar I of Norway and Sweden.

After fortifying myself during the intermission, I was ready for Gil Shaham, the reason I had come to this concert in the first place. I’d heard about him as a rising violinist (he’s 38) to watch, and I was curious what sort of player would be well-known for replacing virtuosi at the last minute. What, I wondered, is he unambitious?

Shaham played Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major (1878) which, while a virtuoso standard, is known for its modesty with the soloist and the tightness between his line and the orchestra’s. Nagano conducted the first movement a little fast, but this allowed a lovely breathy contrast in the slow second. The spaciness of the conducting let Shaham shine, since his gorgeous coppery tone (playing a Stradivarius doesn’t hurt) seems to prefer a slower tempo. Of course, he handled the fast cadenzas of the first and third movements admirably, but not with the effortless spice of, say, Vengerov.

There was an infectious jolliness to Shaham on stage, probably because he moved so much. (Nagano backed into the corner of his podium by the end, as far as possible from the staggering violinist. I think he was afraid.) His arching back and buckling knees reinforced the exuberant effect.

Overall, Shaham’s exquisite tone suited Brahm’s lean composition beautifully (especially after the Schumann roughage), and made for a captivating performance. The clarity of his tone is astonishing, and hard to overstate. Microphones like it, as he’s got over twenty discs with Deutsche Grammophon alone, and he founded his own label, Canary Classics, in 2004. So perhaps he is not so unambitious after all. In any case, he’s the sort of interesting artist I hope to hear more often next season. This one’s almost over. What to do now?

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