Monday, September 13, 2010

MSO Concert for Haiti

The Thursday before I left Montreal, I went to the outdoor concert that the MSO was hosting as a fund-raiser for Haiti. I arrived early with a book and a snack and was able to stake out an excellent spot on the grass, near the large screen on the right.

I had serious misgiving about going because the evening was threatening rain. A friend called from Ottawa and told me that it was pouring there, but it was a balmy summer night in Montreal; just right for an outdoor concert, although we did get a couple of brief showers during the performance.

Kent Nagano was conducting, Luck Mervil was the MC, and the concert program was:
STRAUSS, R. Don Juan
STRAVINSKI, Firebird featuring Cirque Éloize
ADAMS, Lollapaloosa
GERSHWIN, Summertime; Marie-Josée Lord, soprano
BARBER, Adagio with a narration by Dany Laferrière
LUCK MERVIL, Mézanmi (My Friends)

Although the sound was less than optimal, I loved the Strauss piece. The appeal was as much about the visuals as the music. Cameras were set up in different places on the stage, and the large screen projected a series of shots from different angles. Most of the time the camera focused on conductor Nagano. This was a perspective that I had never seen before at a live concert. It was fascinating to watch Nagano cueing the musicians. Each movement, each gesture was fantastically subtle and intimate; en eyebrow here, a slight nod or inclination of the head there; sweeping movements to encompass the entire orchestra, or single cues to individuals. He embodied the music in the fullest sense of the word. As he stood there the music seems to be emanating from his very being. I was utterly entranced.

Cirque Éloize (which performed in Bogota during this year's Festival de Teatro Iberoamericano), is an acrobatic circus group in the style of Cirque du Soleil. It performed a choreographic interpretation of Stravinski's Firebird. I saw critiques that did not like the performance on the grounds that it did not stick to the narrative of the original ballet. I liked the loose interpretation. The circus techniques, involving trapeze, fabric, and posts on which the performers balanced and spun around, demanded great strength and technical virtuosity, and at times the performing did get in the way of the dance. At the same time the use of these elements enabled the performers to move in ways that are impossible for dancers, allowing them to transcend the gravity to which we mere mortals are subjected. They moved through space and air as if it were a solid medium where they could float without being pulled to the ground. To carry off that illusion takes a lot of skill. The choreography conveyed the themes of vitality, passion, and vulnerability, again very apropos in a performance for Haiti. I thought this was an interesting complement to the MSO's playing.

Lollapaloosa by John Adams is a catchy, rhythmic contemporary piece with which I was not familiar. I thought it would have been great for choreography too.

Haitian-Canadian soprano Marie-Josée Lord sang Summertime by George Gershwin. Her performance was tight and controlled. Each note seemed to build slowly inside before she would let it escape into the air. The effect was one of tension, which I didn't really like in this piece. It was an over the top delivery of a piece that should be more down to earth and folksy. Plus, Summertime is indelibly linking in my mind with my friend Ariel singing in her steamy kitchen. Toward the end of the concert Lord gave an encore with Amazing Grace, delivered in the same tightly controlled operative style. I guess that opera is really just not my thing.

Haitian-Canadian writer Dany Laferrière had just arrived in Port-au-Prince a few days before the earthquake, and he gave a suitably moving account in French of the tragedy, the devastation, and the desperation and vitality of the Haitian people.

Haitian-Canadian actor and singer Luck Mervil performed a couple of upbeat Haitian songs. Again, I saw critiques by people who thought that this was a poor use of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra but I feel that it was fitting for the context, after all this was more than the MSO's season opener, it was an event to raise funds for the rebuilding of Haiti, and what more fitting way than to feature Canadian Haitian personalities in the event and the music of the island?

Overall I really enjoyed the concert and felt that it was well worth having made the trek into town from the suburbs. Afterward I met up with an old friend Paul K. who used to be a classical and tango pianist. It had been years since we had seen each other but he is one of those people that you can pick up where you left off without missing a beat.

I had a wonderful summer in Montreal. Last year I felt estranged from the city. This year I spent more time walking around downtown, reconnecting with old friends and making some new ones, and I felt really good. The city is lovely and I felt welcomed home.

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