Petrenko in an Unofficial Audition with French and Russian Works

CanadaCanada Ravel, Scriabin, Prokofiev and Debussy: Charles Richard-Hamelin (piano), Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal / Vasily Petrenko (conductor), La Maison Symphonique, Montréal, 11.10.2017. (ZC)

Ravel Ma mère l’Oye
Scriabin Le Poème de l’extase, Op.54
Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No.3 in C major, Op.26
Debussy La mer

The Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal is is approaching change at the podium.  In June, its management announced that music director Kent Nagano would be stepping down from his duties in 2020 at the conclusion of his current contract.

The announcement means that Quebec’s admired ensemble is looking for a new leader, and the performance last week provided glimpses into what one potential leader, Vasily Petrenko, would bring to the position. Dubbed “Russian Music,” the evening featured a grab bag of Russian and French concert hits that should have been a perfect for for the orchestra’s sound profile, which Charles Dutoit assiduously developed over his quarter-century tenure as music director. Yet in execution, significant portions came across as routine.

The opening and closing works were masterpieces by Ravel and Debussy, respectively. Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye Suite fared far better, as Petrenko spent time coaxing every bit of fantasy and whimsy possible. The orchestra’s principals—from strings to winds—provided affecting solos. Concertmaster Andrew Wan led all musicians in voluptuous passages, reminiscent of 2010, when I heard him play Franck’s airy Violin Sonata as part of the Seattle Chamber Music Festival.

Performances like the Ravel once defined the OSM, earning it the label from critics as North America’s most decidedly ‘French’ orchestra. La mer, however, failed in part because the essential filigree details drowned in the murky, hefty sound to which Petrenko seemed beholden, and which the orchestra dutifully produced. The result succeeded—but for those looking for impenetrability, not shimmer.

Alexander Scriabin’s Le Poème de l’extase was the most satisfying of the evening. Petrenko chose a brisk, smart tempo, which provided necessary lift for Scriabin’s sometime heavy hand. The strength and heft mustered for La mer was again present—and this time needed—pulsing through the strings from the wayward opening to the mysterious conclusion. The performance had the musculature of the Debussy, with the élan of the Ravel. As Petrenko marched the musicians through each ensuing mood, he produced rich Technicolor and shed needed light on the work’s layered depth—a memorable end for the first half.

After the interval, the young virtuoso Charles Richard-Hamelin joined the OSM for Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.3, a 20th-century masterpiece. But the pianist didn’t shed any new light. Though schmaltz was kept at bay from the composer’s bouncy rhythms, that wasn’t enough: In the second movement, probing gestures were never deployed. The orchestra was mostly a solid companion, but here and there balances with the soloist were out of step, and at times, Petrenko seemed to inch ahead of the pianist’s playing.

Ravel, Scriabin, Prokofiev and Debussy: four composers central to the repertoire and identity of this ensemble. A world-class conductor and an emerging talent like Richard-Hamelin should have been able to rise above satisfactory. During his tenure, Nagano steered the players into challenging new territory, showing this great orchestra can do more than just perform French and Russian fare. The next music director will need to reaffirm the group’s identify, while building on Nagano’s achievements.

Zach Carstensen   

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