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Wednesday’s concert by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra at the Jacobs Music Center offered few surprises. Guest soloist Daniil Trifonov unleashed his savage virtuosity on Sergei Prokofiev’s knotty Third Piano Concerto until it screamed “uncle!”

Kent Nagano [photo courtesy of the performer]

Kent Nagano [photo courtesy of the performer]

Music Director Kent Nagano demonstrated his sophisticated conducting technique, taking his beefy ensemble through particularly complex scores—Debussy’s “Jeux” amd Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”—with unrelenting sangfroid.

And the orchestra brandished its virtuoso prowess at every turn, as if the Debussy and Stravinsky pieces were no more challenging than Haydn’s gurgling “Toy Symphony.” In short, every participant lived up to his vaunted reputation, but that predictability produced more admiration than exultation in this listener.

Daniil Trifonov [photo (c) Dario Acosta-DG]

Daniil Trifonov [photo (c) Dario Acosta-DG]

To that picture, however, Trifonov proved the glorious exception. Nagano chose an appropriately speedy allegro for the opening movement of the Prokofiev, but it was not fast enough for Trifonov, who pushed the tempo until it made his treacherous part even more dangerous—and thrilling to watch, of course, because it was not dangerous for a pianist with his technique: vigorous attacks, aggressive fortes, and athletic cross hand playing that made Trifonov appear that he had also trained as an Olympic gymnast.

None of the composer’s sardonic insinuations in the middle movement were lost on Trifonov, who capriciously toyed with the simpler variations and winked as he puffed up just short of caricature the outsized elaborations. The wild ride through the concerto’s last movement climaxed with Trifonov’s glittering garlands of vivacious descending scales and arpeggios, a burly fughetta, and the expected fiery final cadences. This whirlwind lifted the large audience to its feet, roaring its approval.

Trifonov provided a single encore, Tchaikovsky’s “The Silver Fairy,” arranged by Mikhail Pletnev.

Nagano turned the primitive screams of Stravinsky’s massive ballet into the frightening power of military onslaught, employing his orchestra’s technical prowess and sheer size—the program listed over 120 players—to create massive walls of terrifying sound. Instead of imagining dancers enacting some primitive fertility rite, I kept seeing in my mind’s eye the battle scenes from the Prokofiev-Eisenstein movie “Alexander Nevsky.” But his approach proved brilliant, disciplined, and satisfying in its meticulous pacing.

In the program-opening “Jeux,” the tensile strength and flinty edge of the Montreal string sections insinuated an expressionist air I had not previously associated with this late Debussy work, but Nagano made a convincing case for his approach. In contrast to the long, languid themes Debussy favored in his early orchestral works, in “Jeux” he layered tightly wound shorter motifs, which the Montreal violins executed with startling precision.

Given the size of the Montreal string sections—over 70 players—I hoped occasionally to encounter a plush sonority that such numbers could easily accomplish, but apparently this virtue is not part of the Montreal aesthetic. Granted their program did not leave much room for waves of sweet, undulating strings, but the orchestra’s first encore, Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” certainly offered such possibilities. Exquisitely chosen subtle dynamics, yes, but no plush strings.

Montreal’s second encore, Bizet’s muscular “Farandole” from L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2, brought back the military muscle.

[themify_box style=”shadow” ]This March 23. 2016, concert of the Montreal Symphonic Orchestra was sponsored by the La Jolla Music Society and took place in the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall. The next offering in the La Jolla Music Society’s International Orchestra Series will be the May 4, 2016, concert by the New York Philharmonic in the same venue.[/themify_box]

Montreal Symphony Orchestra

Photo of Copley Symphony Hall
Copley Symphony Hall
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Ken Herman

Ken Herman

Ken Herman, a classically trained pianist and organist, has covered music for the San Diego Union, the Los Angeles Times' San Diego Edition, and for sandiego.com. He has won numerous awards, including first place for Live Performance and Opera Reviews in the 2017, the 2018, and the 2019 Excellence in Journalism Awards competition held by the San Diego Press Club. A Chicago native, he came to San Diego to pursue a graduate degree and stayed.Read more…

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