Review: Tétreault conquers Barber cello concerto with mature, convincing performance

Stéphane Tétreault. Photo: Luc Robitaille

For a music critic, few things are more satisfying than watching a young prodigy bloom into a complete, mature artist. Quebec cellist Stéphane Tétreault has been making the classical music world sit up and take notice since he was a teenager. At 24, he’s fulfilled every prediction for a dazzling international career, while losing none of his passion and expressive charm.

On Monday night, Tétreault played the Samuel Barber Concerto with the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra at Southam Hall. The concerto remains an obscure rarity, a work that pushes both technique and emotion to extreme limits. Tétreault’s performance was mature, organic, free of constraints, and utterly convincing. This has every indication it will become his signature piece.

Playing his 1707 Countess of Stainlein Stradivarius — a gift from his patron, the late Jacqueline Desmarais — Tétreault’s sound was penetrating and urgent. His instinctive, varied use of vibrato — from extravagantly broad to whisper-pale — gave his phrasing exceptional plasticity. The musical intent felt thoughtful, never overthought. The first movement cadenza sounded like an impassioned, spontaneously improvised monologue, while Tétreault’s doleful, confiding tone gave the second movement the singing pulse of a deep-sea lullaby. Conductor Alain Trudel and the OSO provided alert, chiseled collaboration, with substantial solos by bassoonist Ben Glossop and oboist Susan Morris.

Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra showed why Trudel has been invited to stay on as the OSO’s conductor for at least two more seasons. Of course the opening fanfare was thunderously grandiose, and Trudel’s flair for getting the very best out of his brass section was evident. But there was wonderfully detailed, subtle music-making as well — the sinister Science fugue in the divided double basses comes to mind, or some the smaller string ensemble sections.

Montreal-based composer José Evangelista’s O Java, written in 1993, served as an overture to the evening. Evangelista’s globalized style, inspired by Indonesian gamelan music, still sounds fresh and hypnotically beguiling. The score’s textured, tick-tocking layers needed crisper definition from the orchestra, but this was partly redeemed by guest principal violist Brian Bacon’s seductive, shapely solos.

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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.