Yannick Nézet-Séguin and his Orchestre Métropolitain of Montreal are among the first North American orchestras to reconvene since the pandemic lockdown — under careful circumstances.
In four prerecorded concerts being streamed by Deutsche Grammophon starting Friday through Aug. 23, the Philadelphia Orchestra music director and his Canadian ensemble perform the first eight Beethoven symphonies with 50-plus musicians fanned out in Montreal’s church-like Bourgie Hall, without an audience.
They’re calling it “A Summer of Beethoven,” presented as a virtual concert series. “This is not a rehearsal, it’s not a concert, not a recording session but a bit of all … and what I like to call jam sessions,” Nézet-Séguin says in his introduction to the July 31 segment, featuring Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4.
Though many pandemic-era streams have been charmingly homemade, this one has first-class sound quality and well-considered camera work. Musicians are dressed in casual but natty T-shirts and sports shirts bearing the Orchestre Métropolitain logo (OM).
Those who love watching Nézet-Séguin conducting from the front (rather than the backside seen by live audiences) won’t be surprised by the quickly shifting energy in his eyes. The musicians — some separated by acrylic shields — are such an interesting-looking bunch you’d want to invite any number of them to dinner.
Some pundits have lamented that this relatively ambitious project finds Nézet-Séguin with Montreal, instead of either the Philadelphians or his Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. But Montreal is where the conductor is spending the lockdown, and the ensemble there has long been his laboratory and springboard for all manner of musical explorations — in addition to being a distinctive and compelling orchestra in its own right.
Like many orchestras reentering concert life, this one is adjusting to less-than-optimum circumstances. The Montrealers have a warm, lively, church-like acoustic, but one that blunts Beethoven’s hairpin turns and layers of counterpoint. The social distancing maintained by the players can be blamed for occasional uncertain entrances or tentatively-begun phrases in this first concert, which to the orchestra’s credit build into rhythms with greater punch or delicacy.
Mostly, the performances have a middle-of-the-road sensibility, ones that you lovingly greet as old friends who are just as you remember them. That said, there’s at least one jaw-dropping moment at the climax of the second symphony’s first movement when the sound just keeps growing beyond anything you’ve come to expect, like clouds parting to reveal a radiant sun. Maybe like the end of a long Montreal winter?
All of the other Beethoven symphonies (except for the 9th, which is being saved for after the lockdown is over) stand to give a clearer picture of where these performances stand amid the vast range of interpretive possibilities.