|OSM 2011-2012 Maison symphonique (photo: Marita)|
Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in c minor "Resurrection"
Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM)/Kent Nagano
Maison symphonique, Place des Arts
What a pleasure it is
to walk through the underground entrance into Place des Arts in Montréal and
not find the usual obstacle course of construction hoardings! The work had been
going on for so long that it had begun to seem normal, but today entrances to
all the venues are clear and well-lit and the floors are polished. Too bad
nothing could be done about the low ceilings.
At Orchestre symphonique de Montréal’s (OSM) grand opening in its new home last year, only
the auditorium of the Maison symphonique was finished. Most of the lobbies,
restrooms and hallways were still works in progress. Although the interiors are
now finished down to the last detail, the entrance to OSM’s new venue is still
barely functional at best.
After a year of
playing in the hall and making all the necessary adjustments, the orchestra seems
more or less settled into its new home. No doubt about it, the Maison symphonique is a vast improvement over Salle Wilfred Pelletier; on the other
hand, after hearing Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony No. 2 last week, I still have mixed feelings about the quality of sound in the hall.
On The Question of Acoustics
A common problem in
new halls is the lack of bass response. Not so here. Basses and cellos tore
into the opening bars of the symphony with accuracy and gusto and their sound
was rich and clear. No problem at the bottom end in Maison symphonique. The two sets of timpani required for this piece sounded wonderful, and had plenty of presence in all dynamic ranges. The choir too came
across as nicely blended, with ample presence. The Maison symphonique,
thankfully, was modeled after the old European concert halls, with lots of wood
on floors, walls, ceilings and seats and much smaller than many of the newer
and mostly unsuccessful concert halls elsewhere - all features that
traditionally have contributed to more satisfying acoustics.
On the down side, I would
say that the first and second violins don’t project well at all in this hall and that is a
serious matter since they so often carry much of the musical argument. I have
also been disappointed on several occasions in the sound of the softer passages
played by principal trumpet Paul Merkelo - especially so in this Mahler
performance. The problem was not Merkelo’s playing - his many solos were
superbly executed – but rather the hall’s acoustics, which make the quiet
trumpet solo passages seem so “forward” instead of intimate the way they should be. The
two harps faced the same problem. Nagano might want to consider re-seating the
orchestra to try to overcome these problems. The brass certainly don’t need to
be on risers and might blend more easily if they were on floor level with the
rest of the orchestra.
performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony was not a first in Montréal - Nagano
last conducted it with the OSM just five years ago - it certainly provided a
festive opening to the 2012-2013 season.
Reading of Resurrection Stalls at Contemplation
Although Nagano has clearly
demonstrated a real affection for and an ability to sort out the many technical
issues in the music of Mahler, the Resurrection Symphony is not just about
playing the notes; it is about expressing the mysteries of life and death and
ultimately, it’s about belief in life after death - in resurrection. In a truly “great” performance, audience
members can’t help but be swept up in Mahler’s struggle with faith and in the
ecstatic fervor of belief in life everlasting.
In the performance I
heard, Nagano seemed to take a detached view of these matters, carefully
presenting all the arguments in the manner of a professor, while avoiding
personal involvement. This approach seemed to me confirmed, when, after the
final resounding chords had ended, Nagano signaled the audience to hold their
applause, to first “contemplate” what they had heard. This gesture from Maestro
Nagano also signaled his misunderstanding of what surely was Mahler’s intention
with these final chords, which, in the final pages of the symphony, he builds
to a climax that not only affirms resurrection but moves the audience to join
in the rapture of Klopstock’s inspiring poetry and Mahler’s glorious musical
vision. In a truly “great” performance of this symphony, a cathartic release through
spontaneous applause is inevitable after the expression of such profound emotion.
This is not to say
that this performance didn’t have its moments. I have already mentioned the
effectiveness of the opening bars. Another memorable passage was the first
entrance of the chorus; it was beautiful and otherworldly. The chorus was also
in tune and well-balanced. The OSM Chamber Choir is new this season and
provides the professional core of the much larger OSM Chorus. We can hear the
improvement already and chorus master Andrew Megill surely deserves much of the
Giving Mahler the Sound He Prescribed
There is a long
tradition in classical music for offstage instruments – think of the offstage
trumpet in Beethoven’s Leonore No. 3 Overture – and Mahler was very fond of
this device and used it in several of his symphonies. In the Second Symphony
there are extra trumpets and horns that make offstage contributions and then
they come onstage to join the rest of the orchestra for the final peroration.
There is also a
passage in the fourth movement that may or may not require offstage trumpets
and bassoons. Mahler’s instructions in the score at this point are somewhat
ambiguous. What he appears to want here is a balance between the mezzo and the
trumpets that allows the voice to come through easily. To my ears, in this
performance the off-stage trumpets sounded too distant. A better solution might
have been to use cloth mutes on the trumpets – essentially bags over their
bells – to muffle their sound while allowing them to remain strong harmonic
The final pages of
the Resurrection Symphony are intended to be powerful: chorus and orchestra
fortissimo and with lots of extra instruments. Bells are part of Mahler’s
vision and he would have preferred church bells if he could have gotten them
into the hall! Most performances of the Resurrection today use tubular bells
in the final section, but some orchestras do have much larger and more sonorous
bells at their disposal for such works.
Maybe Next Time...
In this Nagano/OSM
performance of Mahler’s Resurrection, some of the instruments called for in
the finale were either underrepresented or not represented at all. Whatever
passed for “bells” barely registered, and the organ required by Mahler was omitted
Labels: classical music blog, Gustav Mahler Second Symphony, Kent Nagano, La Maison symphonique, Montreal, Orchestre symphonique de Montreal, Resurrection, クラシック, 音楽संगीत