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Concert Review/ Yannick Nézet-Séguin & National Arts Center Orchestra & Orchestre Métropolitain

img  Tobias Fischer

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Conductor
National Arts Centre Orchestra
Orchestre Métropolitan
Joni Henson, Soprano / Magna Peccatris
Erin Wall, Soprano / A Penitent
Nathalie Paulin, Soprano / Mater Gloriosa
Susan Platts, Mezzo-Soprano / Smaritan Woman
Anita Krause, Mezzo-Soprano / Mary of Egypy
John MacMaster, Tenor / Doctor Marianus
Alexander Dokson, Baritone / Pater Ecstaticus
Robert Pomakov, Bass / Pater Profundus
Ottawa Choral Society
Cantata Singers of Ottawa
Ottawa Festival Chorus
Orchestra Métropolitan Choir
Boys’ and Girls’ Choirs of the Christ Church Cathedral, Ottawa
Duain Wolfe, Chorus Master

Mahler: Symphony No.8 “Symphony of a Thousand’ 

   O Mahler, how wonderful art thou! This is perhaps the unanimous reaction of praise after the cosmic performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony this evening. Mahler’s music has not had such impact on the minds and the hearts of Canadians for quite some time, and this performance has reaffirmed the popularity of Mahler’s music in a wholeheartedly manner. Coincidently, this year also represents the centenary to the première of this work. This may provoke the added sentimental value for this concert, the first of two performances in Ottawa’s National Arts Centre (NAC). But, if there is one major attributing factor to the success on this evening’s performance, it is this unifying force and cross communication between the 500+ musicians and the 2000+ ticket-holders that elicited the festive, yet almost sacred musical experience. To say the least, it was a proud all-Canadian production.

   With support from the Canadian government and strong national partnerships, this June 16th concert also celebrates the achievements of the Maestro of the evening, the 35 year-old Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Presided by Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, Maestro Nézet-Séguin is the recipient of the 2010 Governor General’s Performing Arts Award, the National Arts Centre Award, a gold medal that has the national prestige (and weight!) as that of the Nobel Prize. As a prelude to the featured performance, the National Anthem is performed en messe by the hundreds of musicians on stage. The award presentation on stage is coupled with a short film sponsored by the National Film Board of Canada in honour of Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The film is an artistic creation, directed by Theodore Ushev, which looks into the symbolic language of music and its relationship with the Maestro.

   Mahler infamously told Sibelius in 1907 that “A Symphony must encompass the whole world, and one should use all the technical means to demonstrate this”. Mahler’s Eighth Symphony irrefutably comprises both the physical and abstract dimensions to affirm to this quotation. The shear size of this “Symphonic-Cantata” is clearly second to none. Although the Salle Southam Hall at the NAC may not be the ideal venue to capture all the musicians and vocalists at their ideal acoustic possibilities, the musical language has came through in the best of their efforts to deliver a grand and spiritual message. 

    One of the strong assets deserving of special recognition tonight are, firstly, the 296 choristers spanning from Ottawa and Montréal. Chorus Master Duain Wolfe, with his training in choral music and a particular expertise working with young choruses, has gone to great lengths in shaping the choristers in top form. Perhaps this is a limitation of physical space on the concert stage, or perhaps it is decided upon deliberately, but the young voices of the Boys’ and Girls’ Choirs are placed strategically on either side of the balcony boxes. This created a disguised theatrical effect – as an impression of angelic voices coming from the heavens (as in the Accende lumen sensibus of Part 1, and in the immediate sections following the entry of Pater Profundus in Part 2). Although, at time it feels like Maestro Nézet-Séguin may have pushed the 296 voices on the verge of breakdown (as in the Accende of Part 1) rendering the overall vocal quality in soundin a bit harsh, the multitude has an unprecedented power of expression and articulation that carried through from beginning to the end of the 80 minutes.

    Secondly, the blending and vocal textures of the 8 soloists have altogether created a unique rapport on stage. Each of the soloists, all Canadian-trained, are recognized by their own individual merits within the arena of the operatic world. Tonight, however, they have joined in harmonious force and are commended by their expertise as Mahler interpreters. Part 1 of the Mahler Eighth illustrates their homogenous energy with the entire musical forces, providing a sphere of sounds that complements with and branches off from the dense orchestral music (as Mahler, in fact, intended). The human voice, per se, contributes an organic layer to convey poetic messages within the work. In doing so, each of the expansive roles of the 8 soloists highlights the Oratorio-like nature of Part 1. Joni Henson, in particular, strikes boldly on several instances with those technically-demanding high notes, which she triumphs over the immensity of the orchestral-choral forces with great transparency. This endeavour, however, has the risks of jeopardizing her tone, as it has on the occasion of the Accende that rendered her execution sounding uneasy and artifical. In Part 2, which is based on the final scenes from Goethe’s Faust, Mahler uses his soloists as vehicles of high-order expression to convey a message of heavenly love. Their stage presentation, coupled to their individual characterization, begs the question if this 60 minute music drama may be the closest link to an opera one could envisage from Mahler. The personifications of soprano Erin Wall (Una poenitentium), mezzo-soprano Susan Platts (Mulier Samaritana) and the dramatic tenor John Mac Master (Doctor Marianus) are particularly engaging and mind-gripping; each of these soloists has a gift of dramatizing a story behind the Mahlerian text. The appearance of soprano Nathalie Paulin (Mater Gloriosa) on stage is somewhat a theatrical disappointment. Her starting words “Komm! Hebe dich zu höhern Sphären!” would have elicited greater dramatic output had she sung those words up on the Balcony or Mezzanine, to represent her uplifted spiritual identity. Nevertheless, she brings a full-bodied and rich Soprano voice on the concert stage, despite only a total of two sung lines.

     Last but not least, the combined efforts of the NAC Orchestra and the Orchestre Métropolitan serve as the connecting link between the vocal forces, and under Maestro Nézet-Séguin's care in direction, the two forces join as one. The sheer enormity of this orchestral force includes nearly 30 woodwind players, 15 brass players on stage (with 8 French Horns), 2 Harp and Timpani players, 1 player each on the Celesta, Harmonium, Piano, Organ and Mandolin, a myriad of percussions including the glockenspiel and tam-tam, plus an enhanced string section that includes 11 double-basses. This surmounts to over 250 instrumentalists alone on stage, plus another 7 brass players (4 trumpets, 3 trombones) off-stage. One early disappointment is identified with the organ’s opening tonic bass note (E-Flat), which fails to sustain the initial four bars as the chorus cries out “Veni, Creator Spiritus.” The polyphony of Part 1 is enhanced by an amplification of 4 trombone and 4 trumpet players, which on a practical level would lessen the physical demands on each instrumentalist, but the additive powers would be fitting as an emphatic proclamation to the spirit of the Creator. While sheer size does have its appeal in Part 1 (and also, in Part 2), the softer, cantabile moments suspended underneath the texts of the vocal soloists provide a striking contrast to the music with tranquility and an ethereal texture. In both Parts 1 and 2, these moments are supported under a bed of lyrical strings and shimmering woodwinds (including the particularly memorable accounts of the concertmaster and principal viola solos, and melodies by the E-flat clarinettist and flautist of the small flute). The glorious endings of Part 1 with the “Gloria Patri Domino,” as well as the return of the grandiose theme of the Pentecost hymn in Part 2 were electrifying. In both instances, however, the full blast of the off-stage brasses at the rear of the concert hall suffers from over-emphasis (some audience had their ears covered), and on one instance the player hit and missed. The fortissimo organ roar also fails to thunder towards the gigantic ending as one may have anticipated. Nevertheless, the overall orchestral colours (for example, in the opening 15 minutes of Part 2) and the driving intensity of this work cannot be truly felt if it had not been the tedious efforts of Maestro Nézet-Séguin. From his engaging communication with musicians from Bar 1 onwards to his full-bodied conducting technique, here is a conductor whose body language and visual cues suit him as a formidable Mahler interpreter. Nézet-Séguin’s Mahler Eighth can no less be remembered as one of cosmic dimensions, fiery magnetism, and vivid imagination.

    O Mahler, how beautiful art thou! After this performance, one might safely add: For Canadians have made your music proud for the World. Visit Toronto Mahler Society  to find out how other Canadians continue to advocate the richness and diversity of this philosopher-composer and the riches of his musical legacy.

By: Patrick P.L. Lam

Image by Trevor Lush

Homepage: Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Homepage: National Arts Centre / National Arts Centre Orchestra
Homepage: Orchestre Métropolitain
Homepage: Joni Henson
Homepage: Erin Wall
Homepage: Nathalie Paulin
Homepage: John MacMaster
Homepage: Ottawa Choral Society
Homepage: Cantata Singers of Ottawa

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