Review: Sure-handed Shelley, passionate Lefèvre deliver Boudreau concerto with verve

Alain Lefèvre.

The world premiere of Walter Boudreau’s Concerto de l’asile, written for pianist Alain Lefèvre, took place in 2013 with the Montreal Symphony. Reviews of the evening describe how the hapless French guest conductor botched the opening so badly he had to bring the performance to a screeching halt after a few minutes, mumble an apology, and then start again.

With such an inauspicious debut, it’s not surprising that Lefèvre and Boudreau candidly stated in their pre-concert chat that as far as they were concerned, Tuesday’s performance with Alexander Shelley and NACO was the concerto’s “real” premiere. Clearly they felt they were in more capable hands with Shelley, who conducted Boudreau’s fantastically dense, difficult score with impressive rigour and discipline.

The concerto is based on the life and work of Quebec playwright Claude Gauvreau, who was part of the Refus Global movement of the late 1940s and spent years in and out of psychiatric institutions. In the first movement, the piano is pitched in a mighty struggle against the enormous orchestra. The main theme makes an early appearance in a Mahlerian flourish of shrill woodwinds and trumpets, but it’s quickly overwhelmed by an apocalyptic clash of musical ideas, culminating in a massive, eight-minute cadenza (Lefèvre played with a score and a page-turner).  

The second movement portrays life in the asylum. Boudreau has created a creepy bedlam of slithering, hallucinatory sounds in the strings and percussion, punctuated by the shuddering violence of electroshocks. In the brilliantly developed last movement, we finally hear the grotesque waltz theme in its entirety. A somber dirge marks Gauvreau’s death before the music bolts wildly to its explosive finale, a redemptive apotheosis for a misunderstood artist.

An long ovation greeted all three men: Boudreau for his astonishing composition; Shelley for his cool, focused execution; and Lefèvre for his gutsy, muscular virtuosity and passionate commitment to Canadian music.

Scheherazade took up the second half of the program. NACO just performed Rimsky-Korsakov’s great Orientalist fantasy in the pit two weeks ago for the National Ballet’s Nijinsky, and it was a pleasure to hear it again from the stage. Shelley turned the piece into pure Bollywood glamour, all spice-bazaar colour, tightly choreographed rhythms and doe-eyed romance.

There were notable solos by Chris Millard (bassoon), Rachel Mercer (cello), Joanna G’froerer (flute), Colin Traquair (trombone), and Larry Vine (horn). But Concertmaster Yosuke Kawasaki had a rare off night — his showcase part sounded a little shaky and bland, and the final high harmonics were under pitch.

Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte started the evening. Here too, Vine produced glowing, lofty horn solos, but from Shelley I would have liked more contrast in tempo between the first and second sections, more clearly defined voicing, and a stronger underlying pulse. This was a  pavane that dragged its feet.

The concert was being recorded for a future CD release by the Montreal-based label Analekta. The program repeats Wednesday.

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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.