Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestre Métropolitain’s Brahms Symphonic Cycle


It must’ve been a pretty big thing. Three of the six daily newspapers in town did preview articles about the Brahms Cycle (Symphony 1, Symphony 2, Symphony 3, Symphony 4) that Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestre Métropolitain performed over the weekend (one, two, three). What with everything else happening in town at the same time, I’m impressed that it got that much coverage. After the fact, it got some as well in La Presse, Le Devoir, The Gazette, La Scena Musicale and someplace called Bachtrack. I bring this up, because I was invited by the orchestra to watch them play as well, and while I’m not certain I would have classified it as a big deal, it was fun.

It was my first visit inside the Maison Symphonique which still is not completed (anyone want to take bets on when it will be done?) I will continue to wait to comment on the building until it is finished. But that’s not going to stop me from commenting about the concerts. The first one, on Saturday evening was of Symphonies One and Two. Then on Sunday afternoon they performed Symphonies Three and Four along with Brahms’ Violin Concerto. For the most part I’ve been concentrating on the Symphonies. No slight intended to Benjamin Beilman, he was very good, but the majority of this piece is not going to be about him. It was also my first time in a long time, something like two or three years, seeing an orchestra. For whatever reasons I’ve been concentrating on chamber music recently. After seeing the Orchestre Métropolitain, I’m going to have to get back into the habit again.

It appears that Maestro Nézet-Séguin is on some kind of Brahms streak right now. In going back over his concerts since September 2006, he performed Brahms’ symphonies eight times with four different orchestras prior to May of this year. Then from May 11 to August 31 of this year (as far in advance as the calendar on his website goes) he will be performing them fourteen times with all three orchestras that he directs! Although we are lucky here as we are the only city to get to hear the third symphony. Rotterdam is getting One and Two, and Philadelphia is getting One and Four. In doing the research for this article both the Rotterdams Philharmonisch and the Orchestre Métropolitain made promo videos (I guess the Philadelphia Orchestra isn’t quite in a position to be able to afford to make promo videos just yet).

The Rotterdam promo

And the Orchestre Métropolitain promo

All nice enough, nothing terribly earth shattering, although it’s kind of cool that Maestro Nézet-Séguin has a favorite conductor. Also, as long as I am talking about the stuff in advance of the concert, I must, respectfully take exception to what Arthur Kaptainis wrote. While his logic was reasonable, he was completely and thoroughly wrong. None of the symphonies Maestro Nézet-Séguin conducted were particularly slow. I would also presume that the performances with the different orchestras will be as different as the orchestras themselves.

I also came across this interview with him from twelve years ago. I wonder how long it is going to take for him to shake the “young conductor” label. I know that when I was 37, I certainly didn’t think of myself as a youngster.

But enough of the rambling. I really should get to the meat of the matter. For the first concert we were seated right beside (if slightly above) the orchestra. They were definitely entertaining seats, as we had a clear view of Maestro Nézet-Séguin conducting and were almost on top of Jean-Guy Plante. I can remember one other time being that close to an orchestra, and while I can understand the allure of being further back so that the sound (theoretically) is better, given that a concert is a live performance, being that close gives you a lot of things to look at. As I said, highly entertaining. Being that close also enabled me to see my favorite violinist and viola players, Celine Arcand and Jean Rene. I wasn’t close enough to make out their playing individually, but I know that they were great.

Maestro Nézet-Séguin mentioned that the set up of the orchestra was Viennese, which as he pointed out meant that the Double Basses were behind the brass section, however the trumpet players were also using rotary-valve trumpets which is particular to the Vienna Philharmonic. My ear isn’t good enough to know if they tuned to A443 or if they used any other techniques, specific instruments or ideas from the Vienna Philharmonic, but I would venture a guess as to yes. It would be interesting to see if he got his other two orchestras to do the same when they do their Brahms gigs.

The back row of a Viennese Orchestra setup.
The back row of a Viennese Orchestra setup.

As I mentioned earlier, Maestro Nézet-Séguin’s tempos weren’t particularly slow. I was able to get my hands on a bunch of different recordings and for the First Symphony it sounded to me as if he was leading them at pretty much the same tempo as Antal Doráti‘s recordings from the late 50s and early 60s. While it would have been nice if I could have identified the tempos of the other symphonies, my sense of timing is not quite as good as my sense of tone, so you’re just going to have to trust me on this one.

The one thing that I was able to pick up on was that in comparison to the recordings that I heard, the Orchestre Métropolitain did not have as much of a dynamic range. However I do not know if that was due to where I was sitting or if it was in fact due to the orchestra. Given that they were a small bunch to start with (about 58 musicians onstage) it might have been a case of not being large enough to get really loud, and therefore the quieter parts didn’t sound as dramatically different.

In the first concert I completely missed the First Symphony’s transition from the third to fourth movement, and then when paying particularly close attention during the Second Symphony understood why. In the Second Symphony the pause was incredibly short, barely enough time for the musicians to turn the page in their scores. I would imagine that it was similar in the First Symphony as well – or perhaps I just fell asleep at the wrong time.

The music itself was very nice. In my notes I refer to it not being syrupy at all, and in certain parts being extremely fluid. If you’re really interested, when I have finished Walter Frisch‘s book Brahms: The Four Symphonies I’ll be in a much better position to describe what was happening as the music was playing, but for the time being you’re going to have to put up with things like “it sounds like they are skipping through a field,” and “kind of like suspended in amber.”

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestre Métropolitain
Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestre Métropolitain

I couldn’t understand, nor did I really like or appreciate that during the intermission there were some children sawing their way through Vivaldi right beside the bar. Afterwards I discovered that there had been some kind of community outreach by the orchestra and Maestro Nézet-Séguin to a local high school. That’s all fine and dandy, but playing inappropriate background music where there really shouldn’t be any is not the way to do it. Working with musicians from the orchestra and being conducted (is that the proper way to say it?) by Maestro Nézet-Séguin definitely fits the bill, and as long as I am at it, I also think they should have been invited to both concerts, not just one. After the intermission, it was back to our seats for Symphony Number Two. In the program they mentioned how “Brahms’s Concerto for Violin displays features that make it almost a companion piece to his Symphony No. 2.” Which made me wonder why they didn’t play them on the same night.

Of the four symphonies I heard them play, the second was, to my ears the weakest. Which is not to say it wasn’t good, just that the other three were better. Specifically in the third movement where they seemed to be alternating between being sloppy and being sludgy. Of the four it was the one that sounded the least emotional to me. Not robotic or mechanical, but more “rote” than “with feeling.” I don’t know where the thought came from, but it occurred to me that it might a=have been a case of not having enough practice time. Maestro Nézet-Séguin tweeted that they only did seven rehearsals which means that one of the symphonies only got one rehearsal. If that was the case, my money is on the second.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestre Métropolitain
Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestre Métropolitain

On Sunday we returned to the still unfinished Maison Symphonique. This time our seats were one row back and on the other side of the orchestra. I definitely know that being one row further back is not a good thing, but I’m undecided as to which side is better. Ultimately when given a gift of tickets, it’s exceedingly difficult to request specific seats. Although I was able to see Mr. Kaptainis from the Gazette sitting fairly far back, on the floor, towards the left. In your standard issue critic’s seats. I think that maybe the ones directly behind the orchestra might be pretty cool. But at some point (once they have completed the building) I’m going to have to try out a variety of different seats to see which ones sound best – after all they have been touting about how great the acoustics are in the building.

The usher in our section wasn’t particularly well trained. We had accidentally entered on the wrong side of the stage and were making our way through the seats to get to the other side, when he stopped us and tried to make us go the opposite way through a large crowd of people walking through a small doorway. Kind of like swimming upstream through quicksand. We didn’t pay him any attention, and hopefully someone will give him some training on how to seat people properly. Then also in looking around at the crowd, the Orchestre Métropolitain really needs to do some work on getting people with different colored skin to show up to their concerts. It was quite easy to see how they had made very good progress in getting a younger crowd to come see them. But I was able to count on my fingers and toes the number of people in the audience whose skin was darker than mine. Next year when they tour the island of Montreal they only play in one neighborhood with a significant recent immigrant population. If anyone is interested, I’d suggest that they play in Montreal North and St. Michel as often as they play in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, Saint Laurent and Pierrefonds.

The Third Symphony seemed to me to be slower than that of the Dorati version I had been listening to. And I think that I made a mistake in listening to it before the concert. Instead of using the concert as my baseline/benchmark and comparing everything I heard to it. I ended up with the Dorati version being the baseline/benchmark and unfortunately comparing the concert to the recording instead of the other way around. Overall it was very light, in a good way. I noted that at various points it almost seemed as if Maestro Nézet-Séguin let the musicians themselves set the pace, which to my ears seemed like a good thing.

We then got the Violin Concerto, and Mr. Beilman acquitted himself very well. I can’t find anything on YouTube of him playing any Brahms, and after all the reading and listening I did for the symphonies, I just wasn’t able to find the time to get to the Violin Concerto, sorry.

The Fourth Symphony started out like a large boat cruising down an even larger river, at various points it sounded to me like some graceful nymphs, tip toeing and very lyrical. But the thing that most impressed me was the fourth movement, where I was incapable of writing one word down – I was just that riveted by the music. While the third movement of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony is the famous one and always reminds me of some B-movie western from the 50s in technicaolor

What Maestro Nézet-Séguin did with the fourth movement was better than particularly nice, it was downright gorgeous and very pretty (I should also point out that Marie-Andrée Benny did an awesome job as well). If I could make it down to Saratoga in August to hear him perform it with the Philadelphia Orchestra I would. If you can, you should. And don’t forget that Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestre Métropolitain will be playing Brahms’ First Symphony again on July 22 at the Domain Forget and are playing two free concerts at Theatre de Verdure on July 20 and August 4.

Then to wrap things up (this has become rather large) I noticed in the program that Maestro Nézet-Séguin donated more than $50,000 to the Orchestre Métropolitain. Which confused the heck out of me, wouldn’t it just be simpler to reduce his salary? It’s quite the gesture and should be done by many more people, but made me realize that conductors are a little bit like NASCAR drivers. The way they earn their money is vary opaque and coming from a variety of very different sources, and as a consequence isn’t exactly clear. Overall though I’m very happy to see that he is making enough money to donate such a large chunk of change.

Overall I’d have to say I was quite pleased with how things turned out. I’m not sure I’d always be interested in doing a sort of marathon of music devoted to on composer, but this one worked out well. Whatever the reason, it was very good to see an orchestra again, and finally get to see Maestro Nézet-Séguin in action. I’m looking forward to the next time. And then lastly (if you’re still reading this far) you should take this quick, easy and very silly test.