Saturday, 17 September 2011


The Montreal Symphony Orchestra has a new home. No longer lost in the vastness of the Salle Wilfred-Pelletier at Place-des-Arts, the MSO now plays in a more intimate hall in the same complex. Last Tuesday evening my partner-in-life and I visited the 1-week-old venue for the first time.

The layout of the new hall reminds me very much of Dublin's National Concert Hall - the dimensions are similar,  long and fairly narrow like a church, and just like at the NCH there's a huge pipe organ behind the orchestra. But one deficiency compared to the NCH is the lack of space to mingle with a drink during the intermission. The bar is right outside the hall at the top of an escalator; there's little standing room and last Tuesday some of even that limited space was cordoned off for a function. We ended up leaning against a wall at the edge of the heaving crowd, tightly clutching our glasses of claret.

For our first visit the MSO was joined by two soloists we'd last seen at the NCH in Dublin: the violinist Joshua Bell and the pianist Angela Hewitt. Bell played short pieces by Tchaikovski and Glazounov -the latter allowed him to display his virtuosity in some dazzlingly difficult sections. However the main event of the evening was Turangalîla by Oliver Messiaen - a huge (80 minute) symphonic piece featuring Hewitt on piano and Jean Laurendeau playing an odd piece of antique electronica called an Ondes Martenot. It produced quivering high-pitched notes that reminded me of the soundtrack to a 1950's horror movie. An apologetically small keyboard device in a simple wooden case, it looked pathetic moored alongside Hewitt's Fazioli grand piano - a plywood dinghy bobbing  against a schooner.

The Messiaen was an odd but interesting piece but I'd need to listen to it a few more times to get my head around it's vastness. I recall some striking interplay between the piano and other percussion instruments and some moments of quite overwhelming orchestral power; there were also times when I completely lost its plot. Hewitt played enthusiastically but the potential expressiveness of her on the Fazioli wasn't realised in this piece which seemed a waste of rich resources; when I saw her in Dublin she played Bach's Goldberg Variations on a Steinway and was quite brilliant.

Still it was a fine evening for a wet Tuesday and I'm looking forward to many more visits to the new hall.

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