Thursday, March 3, 2016

A Winter's Journey: Montréal en Lumière

Montreal seems, at least to an outsider looking in, like a city where one could declare a festival any week of the month and find events to stitch together into a program. (That, in fact, is more or less what I did when I went there in November for the premiere of Opéra de Montréal production of Strauss’ Elektra.) It’s a busy little city, one that likes doing things and isn’t about to let something like uninhabitable temperatures get in its way.
Photo by Frédérique Ménard-Aubin

Nothing makes that point more plainly than the 18-day Montréal en Lumenaire festival, where the thick-blooded and tall-booted Québécois take to the streets to prove that, even in February, they can. And in the midst of it all is the overnight Nuit Blanche, where they demonstrate their mettle with ice sculptures and ice candy and defy the elements with an outdoor slide, zip line and Ferris wheel. It’s a healthy bit of willful madness but then nobody has ever accused Montreallers of being altogether sane. Within it all there’s plenty of room to carve one’s own itinerary, as I did over the four days leading up to Nuit Blanche, with concerts of Bach, Haydn, Messiaen and Shostakovich bookended by a pair of Schubert performances.

The first of those was an evening of chamber works Feb 24 under the name “Spotlight on Shubert.” The concert delivered all the flurries of emotion, highs and lows, that the composer’s own short life held, from the charming String Trio No. 1 to the beguiling String Quartet No. 9, full of confidence and broken-heartedness, and culminating in the lyrically tender yet almost heroic Piano Trio No. 1. Schubert’s expressiveness is rarely of a single course and the musicians, especially the London, Ontario-based violinist Scott St. John, followed quite wonderfully.

The following night I was back at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art’s Bourgie Hall (in a beautiful,renovated 1894 Neo-Romanesque church) for a concert of Shostakovich and Haydn entitled From Darkness Into Light: Power and Introspection. A chronological presentation would not have been advised as it would have sent the audience out into the cold Montreal night after the crushing experience of the 14th of Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies. Written in 1969, when the composer was 63 years old, the symphony’s 11 dark movements (in many ways it’s closer to a song cycle) are settings of texts by Lorca, Apollinaire, Rilke and Wilhelm Küchelbecker, all addressing issues of death. 
With a row of candles across the front of the stage, the ensemble I Music de Montréal went for the drama, the opening movement beautifully delivered by Stephan Klemm, morose but with no excess of emotion. But most of the weight was on Twyla Robinson, who moved gracefully between soaring and nearly spoken lines. Scored for a small chamber orchestra, it was gorgeously quiet at times, percussion and pizzicato strings coming off in some passages almost like a walking ghost. The cycle ended with Robinson giving almost as plaintive a delivery as the Klemm’s opening song, then both singing Rilke to the heavens, the percussion firing like a pistol.

Hayden’s “Farewell” symphony is a comparatively friendly one. Despite being composed in the dark and altogether uncommon key of F#m, it’s hardly the chill of Shostakovich’s goodbye. It’s more a parting of friends who have no reason to think they won’t see each other again. The farewell Haydn had in mind was something else entirely, but still not a final separation. The third movement ends mid-phrase (rather like his equally appealing “surprise” quartet), suggesting the break and making room for the rousing final section. Haydn, who no doubt would have orchestrated the board game Clue had he lived into his 240s, wrote the piece for the benefit of the members of
Prince Nikolaus Esterházy orchestra, long overdue for a break. In the final movement, the orchestra members slowly blew out the candles they used to read their scores and walked off, symbolically leaving the summer palace and returning home to their families. The battery-operated candles at Bourgie Hall didn’t quite fill the role and instead the stage lights were slowly lowered as the players left the stage in pairs. The gently shifting string sextet, quartet, trio and duo that ended the piece is masterfully scored and the ensemble negotiated it seamlessly.

Montreal’s Arte Musica Foundation has undertaken a mission to perform the complete Bach cantatas over 2015 and 2016 and brought BWV 22, 97 and 150 to Bourgie Hall for a February 27 matinee. In allen meinen Taten (97) was especially wonderful with its sequences of bassoon/organ and violin/cello/organ accompaniments and concluded with conductor Andrew McAnerney turning and leading the audience in a repetition of the final section. 
Afterwards, it was a quick, 10-block walk to Cathédral Christ to hear two of Christianity’s greatest proponent composers, Olivier Messiaen and, well, more Bach. The Messiaen was served buffet-style, with works for piano, organ and voice (and why isn’t Messiaen heard more often in churches?) (besides the fact that it’s just crazy music). The highlight was the striking mezzo-soprano singing his Poèms pour Mi, accompanied by the young and more than capable Rahsaan Allwood, who also played the solo keyboard works.

Cathédral Christ kept its doors open late into the Nuit Blanche with sing-a-longs and hot cider, but immediately following the Messiaen program was a short recital of Bach’s solo organ music by the church's organist, Robert Hamilton. One of the many wonders of Bach’s organ work is that he seemed to find the greatest riches in the simplest of keys. Hamilton gave the wonderful Prelude and Fugue in C Major, BWV 547 a brisk reading followed by a nicely measured take on O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß, BWV 622 from his Little Organ Book.

Photo by Fred Poulin
My journey ended with Schubert's Die Winterreise, performed in French by Quebec City rocker Keith Kouna, formerly of the Quebec City band Ghouls. In a staged version of Kouna's 2014 record Voyage l'hiver, Kouna presented the song cycle as a Serge Gainsbourg bedroom drama with a small orchestra of piano, electric keyboards, electric guitar and bass guitar, strings, horns and accordion. Kouna occupied the center of the stage at the Place des Arts Cinquième Salle for three nights, residing in a sort of woodland bedroom with a mattress, a small writing desk and a haunted refrigerator on the forest floor. Kouna often played off a dancer who seemed sometimes to be his feminine ideal but other times dressed as him, either a reflection or a drunken hallucination. More often, however, he was alone on stage, not daring to wish (in his gravelly voice) for anything better than his sorry lot. 
It was a far cry from Schubert’s original but hardly suffered for the conceptual wear and tear. It was, in fact, a fairly fantastic updating, Schubert’s sick bed repositioned for an antagonist not dying but, perhaps, dead drunk. It was also the concert that provides a bridge into the festival at large, the bad movie screenings and the strip club cabaret that dominated the late night programming. Walking out into the chill of the night after the concert, I was faced with streets filled carousers, many perhaps ready to pass out in an outdoor bedroom not altogether unlike the one Kouna's protagonist called home.

- Kurt Gottschalk