Review: OSO, Kerson Leong offer program full of heart and virtuosity

Alain Trudel led the OSO in a performance of Gustav Mahler's Fifth Symphony in Dominion-Chalmers.

When it was announced last year that the Ottawa Symphony would be using Dominion-Chalmers as its home venue, a lot of people didn’t believe the hall could handle an orchestra of that size. A Bruckner symphony in January proved that the expanded DC stage could, at the very least, comfortably accommodate a large ensemble, even if the sound needed work.

That work is clearly being done: Monday night’s enormous program already showed how happily the OSO is settling into its new home.

Kerson Leong. Photo: Bruno Schlumberger

The concert began with Canadian composer Alexina Louie’s 1983 work Songs of Paradise. Louie is a master of orchestration, and Songs is a condensed, textbook sample of her compelling style. The textures are dense but never heavy. Louie balances martial calls in the brass and percussion with ghostly string tremolos, stealthily murmuring winds, and big, Rothko-like statements of form and colour through solos in the violin and piano.  

Ottawa native Kerson Leong can be counted on to pack a house when he plays in his hometown. After all, the 22 year old violinist has been acquiring a local fan base since he was in elementary school. Leong has matured into an intelligent, inquisitive young musician with a gorgeous sound and just the right amount of dramatic fire.

His playing in Prokofiev’s second concerto was right in the pocket from start to finish. The exposed opening theme was beautifully shaped, the sly, nonchalant virtuosity of the first movement making way for a delicate Andante. Here Leong highlighted the slow movement’s ethereal, romantic nature with long finely spun phrasing and luminous colour.The finale was assertive and impeccably executed, but Leong seemed terribly serious — I have would liked to feel more mischief creep into Prokofiev’s tipsy, lurid waltz. 

The Ottawa Symphony includes a sizeable contingent of students from the University of Ottawa. While this is a fantastic learning opportunity for the students, the model presents conductor Alain Trudel with two main challenges: less experienced musicians who require more micromanagement from the podium, and constant turnover in the strings that makes it difficult to develop a consistent fundamental sound.

With this in mind, you can’t expect the OSO’s Mahler 5 to sound like the Vienna Phil — or indeed like that of any stable, full-time, fully professional orchestra. Add the growing pains of settling into a new concert venue, and there were inevitable issues. The strings were too quiet, overpowered by the brass and winds (this was noticeable in the Prokofiev too). Intonation wasn’t always perfect. Transitions could have been smoother and less blatant.

But what this Mahler lacked in virtuoso polish, it made up for in heart, focus, and excitement. The musicians played out of their skins for Trudel, who never let them fend for themselves, conducting with equal parts inspiration and reassuring clarity (this was not the place for Karajan minimalism or Gergiev-style interpretive dance). There were solos that would have been worthy of nearly any concert stage in the world: the heavyweight lifting of principal trumpet Travis Mandel; Nigel Bell’s poised, deeply lyrical horn solo in the third movement; Caroline Léonardelli on harp and Jonathan Wade on tympani. The last movement was particularly impressive, brimming with joy and building in energy to the last note. Trudel and the musicians can feel very proud of their effort.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.