For those of you who think that classical music is dead, or that classical music cannot appeal to a mass audience, or even that the funding of classical music organizations is doomed to be perennially on the brink, you clearly did not attend the Montreal Symphony‘s presentation at the Bell Centre on 2 April 2009. The concert was called the ‘Meeting of the Century’ and combined anniversaries of two of the city’s organizations: the centennial of the Montreal Canadiens — arguably the most successful hockey franchise in the National Hockey League — and the 75th anniversary of the Montreal Symphony. Linking these two organizations together may seem gimmicky or spurious, but in fact the combination represents Nagano’s keen observations about Montreal culture. Furthermore the program — while it did feature pieces to do with hockey — was not limited to pops highlights: indeed, the 12 000 attendees were equally enthralled with excerpts from Beethoven, Respighi, and Holst. A sold-out arena concert is generally in the ambit of a Britney Spears, not a symphony orchestra, so it is worth considering how the OSM presented such a successful show — and benefited from the results, since the funds will assist the orchestra to tour Europe next year.
One of the main features of this concert was a performance of Les Glorieux, a work commissioned last year by the OSM. The piece was so popular that the concert and rehearsals sold out, leading the OSM to develop the Bell Centre idea for this year. Les Glorieux is a nickname for the Montreal Canadiens and pays tribute to the historical legacy between the city and its hockey team. Hockey in Montreal is like baseball in Boston or football in Texas: the city’s natives follow events with a close and critical eye. Not only is the team important today, it also has an enviable legacy with the most Stanley Cup wins of any hockey team and the second-most championships of any professional sports team in North America (the Yankees have the distinction of 26 to the Canadiens’ 24). Nagano’s decision to commission the piece shows his understanding of Montreal’s culture and the reverence that hockey has. Not only did the orchestra perform the work, they also invited several of the legendary players from the team to join them on stage: Guy Lafleur, Elmer Lach, Jean Béliveau, Henri Richard just to name a few.
What was impressive, though, was that Nagano did not allow this event to be only about hockey. The OSM presented a program primarily of 20th-century pieces and Beethoven. While several, such as Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man and ‘Mars: Bringer of War’ from Holst’s The Planets, can be viewed as appropriate for the pop repertoire, the OSM also played the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and the final movement from the ‘recapitulation’ (entrance of the voices) from Beethoven’s 9th, accompanied by a choir of 1500. Certainly these pieces are not difficult listening, but I would defy any conductor to present, say, Webern in a hockey arena and capture the subtleties. The audience, however, was very appreciative of all the works, not just the hockey piece but of the program as a whole. Imagine an arena filled with people cheering a performance of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ or the last movement of Respighi’s Pines of Rome with an entire additional brass band. Purists may see this event as little more than a gimmick, but if it brings classical music to 12 000 people while providing much needed support to arts organizations , I think that they should be encouraged.