Kent Nagano opened the Montreal Symphony Orchestra’s 75th season last night at Place des Arts with Mahler’s Symphony No. 8.


Grand in scale and lofty in spirit, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony is a score that makes a statement simply by being performed. It is my pleasure to report that last night it seemed like more than a ceremonial device for opening the 75th season of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. 

Rest assured that the 135 instrumentalists, 240 choristers and eight soloists – 383 in all – fired on queue and made a mighty sound for Kent Nagano in Place des Arts. The concluding minutes, arching from mystical whispers to a full-throttle apotheosis, were worth the price of admission alone.

There were other pleasures in the second part, a setting of the conclusion of Goethe’s Faust that lasts almost an hour on its own. Naganomanaged a fair portrait of a romantic forest at the outset. If the lower registers were gruffly dealt with by baritone Sergei Leiferkus and bass Reinhard Hagen, the tenor Simon O’Neill created a young, clarion sound in the crucial role of Doctor Marianus.

The women, all individual voice types, were nicely cast. Jennifer Wilson was a fierce dramatic soprano. Janice Chandler-Eteme, as the transformed Gretchen, was poised and radiant. Nagano might have added some drama to the presentation by placing one or two of the ladies elsewhere in the hall. It is one way to make the entry of the Mater Gloriosa (in this case, Aline Kutan) seem exceptional.

The choir, prepared by Michael Zaugg in his official debut as chorus master, stretched the span of the stage of Salle Wilfrid Pelletier, its side walls having been removed to accommodate the numbers. Adults were good, especially through the aforementioned conclusion. It was clever to render the hermits’ chorus in harsh sibilants – a touch of verismo.

But the best impression was made by the sweet, velvety boys of Les Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal. Note that Bruno Walter likewise found the children most inspired at the first performance, under Mahler, in 1910.

Is there room for improvement in the repeat tonight? The first movement, a setting of Veni, Creator Spiritus, came across as an exuberant exercise in counterpoint, but not much more. Adding five minutes to this, with more aspirated phrases, and taking five from the second movement would create a more balanced 87 minutes. Some high woodwind passages lacked optimum focus.

With so many diverse components, the Eighth is hard to unify. Why does the Latin first movement, stalwart and contrapuntal, have to do with the German, arch-romantic second? Only the greatest performances answer the question, or make the question seem impertinent.

But this was a good Mahler Eighth. And good is good enough.

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© The Gazette (Montreal) 2008