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The Unassuming Pianist Maria João Pires Thrills with a Bold Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 at Carnegie Hall

Mark McLaren, Editor in Chief, March 15, 2016

The Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires, a woman whose career has focused equally on fascinating pedagogy and thrilling performance, brings technique, elegance, and bold choices to a captivating performance that ‘stopped the show’ tonight at Carnegie Hall, and lead to a rare pre-intermission encore. This as Kent Nagano and his Orchestre symphonique de Montréal return to New York, following a long absence, as a vibrant, world-class, and ‘must-see’ musical team.

The seventy-one year old Ms. Pires is the sonic equivalent of Meryl Streep – breath-taking technique supporting exciting, sometimes audacious decisions. And tonight, both technique and point-of-view were flying through Stern Hall as Ms. Pires played a Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37 as radically exciting as the Ravel and Stravinsky that book-ended the work. It is not a big sound, and the thrill in hearing Ms. Pires is how she has compensated for a slight lack of heft with an abundance of détaché articulation in her phrasing – a smart solution to small-ish hands. Runs and trills, no matter how fast, are crystal clear and pop from the piano. She can sit at the very front edge of a tempo without the slightest whiff of rushing – an eager, assured metronome. Every note of Ms. Pires’ interpretation breathes with intention, and her sound is unique and endlessly exciting.

In conductor Kent Nagano, Ms. Pires has a kindred spirit. A mature musician with bold ideas of his own anchored in an understated, highly developed technique, Nagano follows his soloist with a deft synchronicity. Nagano is in his tenth year with Montréal, and a happy marriage between conductor and orchestra is evident. The orchestra responds to Pires’ interpretation en masse, and follows Nagano through Ravel and Stravinsky equally united. Early in his career, Nagano worked in Boston under Seji Ozawa, a leading interpreter of French Romantic orchestral rep, and Montréal’s reading of Ravel’s 1920 La Valse is clean and dynamic. Tempos are sure, phrases are supple and insistent, and textures rich.

Also on the program is Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, a thunder-stealing work in a solid performance that, within Mr. Nagano’s clever programming and alongside Ms. Pires’ spectacular performance, had its own thunder stolen just a tad.

The Orchestra symphonique de Montréal is rarely in New York (Carnegie Hall in 2008 and 2011), and their appearance here is the second of a ten-city U.S. tour.  As individual orchestra sounds become rare, Montréal comes with its own palate. The balance among the fine (often young) musicians is spot on, but it is a balance in which the individual components maintain a bright presence. The strings are firm and emphatic, the brass proud and unafraid. This is a sound with tremendous polish but little varnish, and the result is exciting.

So, in Nagano and The Orchestra symphonique de Montréal, you will find a compelling reason to visit their home city – where, in addition to other attractive attributes, you’ll hear a world-class symphony producing fascinating work. World-class music-making was on confident display tonight at Carnegie Hall.

Follow The Orchestra symphonique de Montréal United States tour here.

Follow ZEALnyc’s reporting on Sondra Radvanovsky’s exciting Three Tudor Queen engagements at The Metropolitan Opera here.

And click here for ZEALnyc’s complete reporting on New York City and world arts & culture.


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