La Scena Musicale

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Festival Orford 2012: Kuerti Goes Deeper and Nagano Plays Small Ball

by Paul E. Robinson


Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 8 in a minor K. 310
Beethoven: Sonata No. 21 in C major Op. 53 “Waldstein
Schubert: Sonata No. 21 in B flat major D. 960
Anton Kuerti, piano
Salle Gilles-Lefebre
July 28, 2012

Ravel: Trio in a minor for violin, cello and piano
Poulenc: Le bal masque
Dutilleux: Sonnets de Jean Cassou
Stravinsky: L’Histoire du soldat Suite
François Le Roux, baritone; Olivier Godin, piano; Marianne Dugal, violin; Sylvain Murray, cello; Olga Gross, piano; Members of the OSM
Kent Nagano, conductor
Salle Gilles-Lefebre
August 7, 2012

After more than 60 years of service, the Orford Arts Centre in Eastern Quebec (l’Estrie) has become one of the most venerable arts institutions in Canada. Founded by Gilles Lefebre in 1951, it is still going strong at the same location, tucked into one of the mountain passes on Mont Orford. This area is a magnet for skiers in the winter, and for for hikers, golfers and music lovers from surrounding cottages and the nearby town of Magog in the summer.

Three years ago, after a failed experiment in Knowlton, Quebec, it appeared that Orford would become the summer home of the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal. On the evidence of this year’s programme, however, that dream also appears to have vanished.

Only ten members of the OSM showed up at Orford this summer to take part in a chamber concert. OSM music director Kent Nagano conducted his reduced orchestra in part of one concert and also appeared the next morning leading the student orchestra in a rehearsal. This was a far cry from what was billed three seasons back as “OSM Week at Orford!” So the OSM is apparently doomed to continue its summer wanderings, and Orford, at least to this music lover, appears somewhat diminished by its absence.

I can’t help feeling, in spite of the decent audiences for the two concerts I attended, that the Orford Arts Centre is in the doldrums these days. The place is still a refuge for gifted students, and major artists still put in an appearance from time to time to add lustre to the proceedings, but there is no sense of growth or fresh imaginings here; on the contrary, there is a sense of playing it safe and reducing risk. True, these are admirable qualities in a time of global economic crisis, but surely the programmers could come up with something more inspired than yet another celebration of Debussy, French music and Jacques Hetu.

Although artistic director Jean-François Rivest appears to have run out of both money and ideas, there is nonetheless some fine music-making going on at Orford and it is well worth a trip at least from somewhere close by in the Eastern Townships to hear it.

For example, Anton Kuerti (photo: right) has had a long association with Orford going back to its earliest days and he returned recently to teach and play the music he loves best. Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata displayed yet again Kuerti’s fondness for extreme dynamic contrasts and he gave a virtual master class in realizing Beethoven’s pedaling instructions. A great performance! Schubert’s magnificent B flat major Sonata was also played with total mastery and a seemingly infinite variety of tonal shadings. Kuerti also found in Schubert’s rhythms not the usual tiresome repetition, but a wealth of nuance.

At the OSM chamber concert on August 7th, we heard two genuine rarities: Poulenc’s La bal masque and Dutilleux’s Sonnets de Jean Cassou. Both performances featured the extraordinary French baritone François Le Roux (photo: right). He was in great form and Nagano and the OSM musicians were with him every step of its surreal way in the Poulenc. This music dates from 1932 and shows yet another facet of the composer’s resourcefulness with instrumental timbres. The Dutilleux songs are dark and unsettling and Le Roux and pianist Olivier Godin gave them powerful performances.

Stravinsky’s l’histoire du soldat sounds somewhat incomplete without the text that was meant to be an integral part of it but the OSM musicians again demonstrated their virtuosity and attention to detail.

Ravel’s Trio received a competent performance but the playing of violinist Marianne Dugal and cellist Sylvain Murray seemed to lack passion and sensuality. Pianist Olga Gross offered greater intensity in her playing.

The Salle Gilles Lefebre has recently undergone some renovations and the results are impressive. The 544-seat hall has become much more attractive and the acoustics are superb.

The programme notes for both concerts were attributed to Sylveline Bourion and they were frequently incomprehensible. I doubt that the translation was entirely to blame.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: The Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcastClassical Airs.

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