Triumphant return for Conlon with OSM

02.03.12
James Conlon
Montreal Gazette

By Wah Keung Chan

Following last year's success in Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, American conductor James Conlon made a triumphant return to the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal in a program of Wagner, Schumann and Dvorák.

It was the Conlon OSM duo's first pairing at Maison symphonique and the romantic repertoire showed why the hall is such an improvement. Conlon brought lush and enveloping sounds from the orchestra. Seated in row W of the parterre, I found this live experience better than listening to the home sound system.

The orchestra has settled on a winning stage setup; like the January Mahler concert, the risers were pushed back for winds, brass and timpani, while the strings were arranged with violins on the left, cellos in the centre and violas and bass section on the right.

The main success of the evening was Dvorak's 40-minute Seventh Symphony in D minor, opus 70 following the intermission. The Seventh Symphony was composed in 1885, months after hearing Brahms's Third Symphony, as a commission from the Royal Philharmonic Society in London, which had bestowed the composer honorary membership on the occasion.

Conducting from memory, Conlon brought intensity to Dvorak's monumental work. The first movement is filled with many melodies and the different sections of the OSM were able to shine. The winds and horns excelled in the slow second movement, which Conlon shaped in a beautiful arc. The most memorable part of the symphony is the striking motives of the third movement, which Conlon derived sharp articulations from the strings. The energy carried over to the Allegro finale in a sweeping enveloping performance, earning the maestro three standing ovations.

The concert, however, took a few minutes to get up to speed. From the very opening of the prelude to Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, it felt like this work was under rehearsed. The orchestra played sluggishly and ensemble coherence was off. However, in the second section, which called for more clarity in the strings, Conlon brought the group together, showing off his mastery of Wagner's music.

Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor, featuring Canadian pianist Alain Lefèvre, also got the similar treatment. Here, Lefèvre was a bit sloppy in his aggressive approach to the Allegro maestoso first movement. However, in the slow second movement, Lefèvre managed to bring back clarity, especially in the galloping passages. The interplay between Lefèvre and Conlon effectively carried the third movement to a rousing end.