A Canadian outpost of European culture led by an American visits Chicago this fall.
The Montreal Symphony Orchestra is “a unique reflection of Quebec culture,” said music director Kent Nagano recently by phone from Hamburg, Germany, where he was preparing a new production of Shostakovich’s satirical opera The Nose. “Quebec is fascinating. It’s the one part of North America that never really had a rupture with Europe, so it’s a connection that’s never been broken to an older European civilization.”
And that connection comes through in the playing of the OSM (to use its French initials), Nagano said. “There’s a unique Montreal sound, especially in the European repertoire, combined with the technique and flexibility of American orchestras — since we really are a part of the New World.”
The OSM and Nagano will have seen a lot of the New World when they arrive Oct. 15 at Symphony Center after a Latin American tour for a program of Prokofiev, Bartok and Rachmaninov.
Nagano, born and raised in California, took over the Montreal podium from the Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit in 2006, but he said that he quickly assimilated to the sound and culture. “But I was coming there via Paris and Berlin,” he pointed out. “It would have been different if I arrived directly from San Francisco.”
The quality Nagano speaks of was recognized by Tribune critic John von Rhein on the ensemble’s last visit to Chicago, in 2016. The program “revealed the deeply ingrained Gallic sensibility of Nagano’s orchestra, also how carefully that ensemble has preserved the best stylistic qualities of a heritage Charles Dutoit refined during his 24-year tenure as Nagano’s predecessor,” von Rhein wrote. “However greatly Nagano may have extended the OSM’s repertory, Quebec’s cultural ambassador remains the best Gallic orchestra in the world, and Friday’s concert found the Montreal musicians at the world-class top of their game.”
Tours showcase an orchestra’s personality first-hand to new audiences, but Nagano said it also helps musicians stay sharp. It’s easy to settle into a routine at home, but playing in a new hall every night on the road “obliges us to really question how we are playing and adapt to different settings, different acoustics,” he said. And “to go somewhere as a collective is a completely different context from one’s domestic life. It draws them together as a shared experience.”
Ironically in today’s hyper-connected world, when music is available online all the time, Nagano thinks “there’s a reignited passion for live music. As human beings we are not perfect, and that’s what makes classical music so wonderful.” The OSM also has toured to the far northern reaches of Quebec, playing in Inuit and Cree settlements to build its local connections.
Chicago will be the final tour stop after seven concerts in South America and Mexico, but Nagano believes staying fresh is not a problem. Details of phrasing and dynamics change according to the acoustics of every hall, he said, and they may even adjust dynamics according to the cultural expectations of the audience. At every new venue, conductor and orchestra do a quick sound-check rehearsal. “We think of the concert hall as an instrument,” Nagano said, “and when you play a different instrument, it takes a moment of adjustment.”
Nagano has conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Center, and because of the OSM’s visits in recent years, “we know the hall and we sort of know the audience,” he said. “But we’ve never played Bartok or Prokofiev there. I love the acoustics. It’s a little different from our home in Montreal, but the orchestra is used to that. We’re very excited.”
The OSM is taking three different programs on tour, “but where we really have fun is the encores,” Nagano said. “We’re taking a whole basket of encores with us, so every concert really will be different.” Any hints about what Chicago might get? He laughs. “I can’t tell you that.”