Despite the recent ascent of the Orchestre Métropolitain, for as long as anybody can remember the OSM has been the primary cultural trading vessel for classical music in Montreal. It’s a musical ship that both imports the world’s best-known soloists and exports Montreal’s finest sonic goods on international tours. And during an epidemic of distraction, in times of acute cultural fragmentation, the exporting of the orchestra’s sacred sounds (delivered in person) is a key to securing its ability to survive and thrive.
But not all diplomatic adventures for Montreal’s classical missionaries bring the vessel to foreign soil. New potential believers in the classical acoustic gospel lurk where the OSM lives and reaching them with the Good-Sounding News means venturing into terrain even more unfamiliar than a concert stage in Berlin or Tokyo. Taking the giant musical ship of the OSM – a vessel designed to sail the smooth, regulated waters of the Maison Symphonique – deep into the unpredictable urban Savannah of Parc Jarry is as ambitious and awkward and outrageous as it sounds to anybody who has heard the orchestra in peaceful, indoor settings. Compromises, from both listeners and musicians, would have to be made.
Having performed in Brossard’s Sorbonne Park a week earlier, this wasn’t the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal’s inaugural journey into grasslands for 2018. But even if it were to become routine, I can’t see a concert like the one offered last Monday night ever losing the shock of the surreal. The 20 000-odd rotating listeners – some of them happily sedentary, others stubbornly searching for (but never finding) the perfect spot – seemed to find a myriad of ways to enjoy the strange spectacle of some of the world’s best musicians driving a ship made of fine, fragile lumber through an amplified jungle to reach the ears of the faithful.
In plenty of ways, the whole thing was ridiculous; you really need to believe in the irresistibility of your gospel’s truth (or the gullibility of your listeners) to recruit enthusiasts with such a diluted version of scripture. The multiple listening locations I tried out (before settling for a spot at the extreme left end of the first row) were all receiving vibrations that sounded like the program the OSM was playing. But everywhere I went, the culinary equivalent to the sound was something like being served an extremely fine cut of steak in a 2-day-old, rock-hard bun that used to belong to a quarter-pounder with cheese. I’d doubt the musicians could hear themselves clearly. And it wasn’t always a bad thing, but imperfect amplification meant that the series of orchestral pieces from Carmen were served with a side of thrilling death-metal bass from the sub-woofer. At least it was on the house.
But the social landscape itself was worth taking in (even a deaf Beethoven would probably have gotten a kick out of the rich people-watching experience). A pathway for wanderers was carved out beneath a rise in the terrain, which made distractions from pedestrian traffic minimal. Judging by the concentrated, expressive faces I noticed in what I suspect were the better listening zones, the most enthusiastic fans managed to get the best spots. People on the outskirts enjoyed a distant soundtrack to their last bottle of wine without bothering anybody with their chatter. Although it was probably facilitated by the fact that this was a crowd of fans (not fanatics), the peaceful improvised colony of 20 000, smoothly scattering themselves without guidance, felt like an exotic break from the regulations of city life.
And for people able to perceive the whole thing more like John Cage than like a classical puritan, the rewards could be sublime. Somebody once asked Cage how he could compose with an open window that let the sounds of a busy city street stream into his studio. He replied “I think of it as a soundscape”. Near the concert’s end, Maestro Adam Johnson guided the orchestra to a blissful, satisfyingly-paced rendering of Isolde’s Liebestod. At the same time, a plane flying overhead passed right through the middle of the visual space above the orchestra like it would in a slick commercial. It faded out of aural space just as Isolde faded from sonic view and a baby next to me was laughing with pleasure as it was helped by its father’s arms to jump off of and land back on top of the dad’s massive belly and there was a couple dancing behind us and my friend smiled and then the musical Isolde died and I know I know, this sentence… But it all just seemed to happen at once and it was unlike any soundscape I’ve heard at the thousands of classical concerts I’ve been to.
To assess the work of the conductor I have to sadly abandon ship and switch metaphors. The orchestra was lucky to have Johnson as its captain, but the job of an OSM conductor is, in some ways, more like guiding a self-driven car than captaining a sea vessel. The real work takes place during the programming sessions of time-constrained rehearsals where the brain of an engineer is required to corral the wild talents of a hundred-odd musicians into the shared space of an inspiring vision. Authoritatively evaluating Johnson’s work on the basis of my impressions from an area stage left would be ridiculous. But I can say with confidence that the Wagner (Isolde’s Liebestod) was graceful (without lacking grandiosity) and miraculously well-gauged, given the circumstances of the soundcheck. The William Tell Overture was performed at a reasonable tempo, with a balance between the different sections of the orchestra that must have made it clear and thrilling even to the wine-tasters at the back of the crowd.
Johnson’s most impressive work was in facilitating the fabulous vocal stylings of soprano Claire de Sévigné. Her Donizetti (“O luce di quest’anima” from Linda di Chamounix) was jaw-dropping (She couldn’t hold that high note for… Yup, she just did…). The dramatic sweep of Adèle’s Laughing Song (from Die Fleidermaus) spread laughter of amazement into the front rows. When the speakers amplifying her voice wavered, De Sévigné’s powerful, piercing instrument still managed to reach deep into the gathering of thousands of listeners. She was the star attraction and it was easy to see and hear why. And throughout, she benefited from Maestro Johnson’s steady hand at the sensitive (although partially self-driven) wheel of the orchestra. Under his guidance, the OSM caught her perfectly at the tail end of freely-sung descents after she savored her ventures up high, lingering in stratospheric vocal heights for an extra moment or two.
I didn’t see a single disappointed face as the huge crowd filtered out. It’s hard to imagine that four or five of these concerts would be too much next Summer. And I wish I could end this review with some sort of wise-sounding comment about the wholesome pleasures of a concert of classical music in the park, but I’m still trying to digest the plenitude of the soundscape.
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