Université de Montréal | Jean-François Rivest’s Grandiose Farewell

par Elena Mandolini

Université de Montréal’s Salle Claude-Champagne was packed to the rafters on Saturday evening for an exceptional concert. Not only was the program ambitious (Mahler’s Second Symphony was featured), but it was also the last concert of the season for the Orchestre de l’Université de Montréal (OUM), and Jean-François Rivet’s last as conductor, as he retires at the end of the university term. For all these reasons, the occasion had to be celebrated in style. Some 250 musicians gathered on stage to thrill the walls of Salle Claude-Champagne with their remarkable interpretation of Mahler’s Symphony.

If Mahler’s work had to be described in one word, it would probably be contrasts. Contrasts of nuance, of tone, of size too. The OUM perfectly conveys all these subtleties. Despite the large number of players, the pianissimo nuances are truly pianissimo. In this second symphony, particularly in the first movement, there are several superimposed melodies shared by the different sections of the orchestra. The balance between these sections is excellent, allowing us to hear each melody distinctly. The low instruments, especially the double basses, are the driving force of this work, and throughout the evening we hear them carry the orchestra with flawless precision.

If the first movement is dramatic and powerful, the second is more playful and dance-like. We admire OUM’s ability to move from boundless power to restraint, without losing any of its precision. Jean-François Rivest guides these transitions with evocative gestures, true to his trademark precision. The third movement gives way to beautiful exchanges of melody between different instruments. Here again, the moments of heightened intensity are never confused. The volume achieved by the orchestra is at times staggering. In the fourth movement, the orchestra provides excellent accompaniment for mezzo-soprano Mireille Lebel. This very short movement ends delicately, with a soft, enveloping sound. The last note of this movement, which seems to fade away, never faltering.

Then the fifth movement calls for a return to force. The same energy and power as in the first movement, but with even greater grandeur. In this movement, the brass must play backstage. As the Salle Claude-Champagne is not entirely suited to this, in our opinion, these instruments are barely audible, but the echo from backstage creates a very beautiful effect. This movement also features a large chorus. This is where we find a downside. The execution of the soft nuances gives the impression that the choir is hesitating. We would have appreciated a little more certainty in the choir’s entries in the soft, almost a cappella passages, accompanied by the soprano Layla Claire, and more power in the work’s final, fortissimo moments. But the symphony ends grandly, with an impressive brass section and a few organ chords.

The evening lived up to its billing. The OUM once again demonstrated its great talent and ability to rise to ambitious challenges with flying colours. It was a fitting tribute to Jean-François Rivest on his last evening at the helm of the orchestra.

For the calendar of events at the Université de Montréal’s Faculty of Music, click HERE!

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