Scratch one name from the horse race to succeed Kent Nagano as music director of the OSM: Sir András Schiff.
The Hungarian-born pianist, who was scheduled to play and conduct in the Maison symphonique on Oct. 23 and 24, ended up performing only before intermission in both concerts. Schiff withdrew from the second half of the program after an acrimonious rehearsal in which OSM sources say he criticized the players unfairly and even accused them of “sabotage.”
The incident resulted in a letter to Le Devoir from the orchestra’s CEO, Madeleine Careau, in which she fiercely defended the professionalism of the players and decreed a policy of “zero tolerance” of the abusive language Schiff is alleged to have used.
Three musicians consulted by the Montreal Gazette said Schiff walked out of the first rehearsal on Oct. 21 after less than an hour of unproductive work on Bartók’s Dance Suite, a score with frequent changes of time signature and tempo. The trigger, according to these sources, was a testy exchange with a woodwind player who was himself on the verge of making his exit.
“What is the problem?” Schiff is alleged to have asked. “You are my problem,” was the response from this musician, whom no one consulted by the Montreal Gazette was willing to identify.
The conductor having decamped, the rest of this rehearsal was cancelled. Negotiations — Careau in her letter refers to Schiff, “his agent, the OSM management and the musicians’ committee” — resulted in an agreement that the pianist would be involved only in Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D Major and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Thomas Le Duc-Moreau, the fledgling OSM assistant conductor, would conduct Brahms’s Haydn Variations and the same composer’s Tragic Overture — the latter instead of the Bartók.
A delegation of two musicians as well as the OSM director of programming, Marianne Perron, visited Schiff in his dressing room the following morning in an effort to restore harmony. Violinist Marc Béliveau, one of the musicians and a member of the musicians’ committee, said Schiff was not in a conciliatory mood. “He had a body language that suggested, ‘Oh, you’re coming to apologize.’
“Never at any point did he consider apologizing or even saying, ‘Look, we got off on the wrong foot.’ There was not a hint that he questioned anything that he said or did.”
The Oct. 22 rehearsals started in relative peace, Béliveau said, but Schiff soon resumed his criticisms, particularly of the second violins. “The reason the seconds were struggling is because the piano was put at such an angle that firsts and seconds couldn’t see each other or hear each other,” Béliveau said. “And they (the second violins) couldn’t see him.”
An adjustment of the piano eased tensions slightly, but another incident added to the unpleasantness at the final rehearsal of Oct. 23 when certain players — witnesses say two or three — began playing Beethoven rather than Haydn, which was the work Schiff expected to rehearse first.
“He just flew off the handle,” said concertmaster Richard Roberts, who characterized the concerto mix-up as a trivial error. “Nobody was trying to do anything to him. Nobody at any point.”
As if to seal the hard feelings, a first-desk string player initially refused to accept the traditional flowers handed to the guest artist when Schiff offered her the bouquet after his performances of Oct. 23. There were no flowers on Oct. 24, but Schiff did mutter criticisms during this concert, which, according to Béliveau, some members of the audience in the first two or three rows probably heard.
Roberts attributes the rehearsal problems entirely to Schiff.
“I don’t think he is a professional conductor,” Roberts said of the 65-year-old pianist. “He is not trained to be a conductor and he is doing things that are difficult to conduct and difficult to play, in particular the Bartók.”
While critical of Schiff’s podium skills, Roberts shrugged off his rehearsal rhetoric. “A lot of people were insulted by his language and the way he addressed the orchestra,” the 38-year OSM veteran said. “But for me this is not a first. I’ve been in five orchestras in North America and conductors are not always polite. Sometimes they stomp on the podium. I don’t think there’s a fuss to be made about that.”
Béliveau shared Roberts’s opinion of Schiff as a conductor, stressing in particular his inability to signal changes in time signature. “He may have the greatest ideas musically,” Béliveau said. “But he is unable to show them with his hands.”
Another player, who did not wish to be identified, said that Schiff in rehearsal was “marking basic time, somewhat unclearly, with only basic movements.” This player said that a “mechanical rumble backstage” added to the tension of the Oct. 22 rehearsal.
Schiff declined a request for an interview. In an interview with Le Devoir critic Christophe Huss, the pianist said that “the orchestra was so badly prepared for the Bartók, it was hopeless.” He also complained that the players fidgeted with their pens and talked during his solo passages in the concertos.
It is worth noting that Schiff led the Dance Suite and Haydn Variations the week before in three concerts with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. A review in the Boston Globe was positive, although some of the critic’s praise was for the stand Schiff has taken against the policies of the Hungarian president Viktor Orbán.
Béliveau said he spoke to Boston musicians who told him they found Schiff difficult to work with and “could not wait for the week to be over.”
All this might revive memories of the relations between the OSM and Charles Dutoit, who resigned as music director in 2002.
“That tension was over a number of years and situations,” Béliveau said. “But for the most part, during rehearsal, it was all business. If we had friction with Charlie, it had more to do with contractual things — him not being able to do a rehearsal or extra concert.
“He was tough during rehearsal and I saw him do outrageous things, but not to so many people and to so many sections within an hour.”
As for Schiff’s efforts as a pianist in Montreal, these received glowing assessments even from the musicians he subjected to withering abuse.
“It was absolutely beautiful,” Roberts said of Schiff’s playing. “I have no qualm about one note.”
“I think in terms of lyrical. Lyric and subtle,” says Frédéric Antoun, right, rehearsing for Opéra de Montréal’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor with Oleg Tsibulko and Florence Bourget.
John Mahoney /
Frédéric Antoun remembers well his operatic debut, in 1999, as Tamino in a Université de Montréal production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
“I was looking at the floor the whole time,” he said in a rehearsal room in Place des Arts. “I was so shy.”
The Montreal Gazette nonetheless credited the young tenor with a performance of “agreeable simplicity” and remarked on “a low-voltage voice that will probably blossom with time.”
This prophecy appears to have been fulfilled: on Nov. 9 Antoun makes his first appearance as Edgardo, the male lead of Lucia di Lammermoor, in the opening of an Opéra de Montréal run of Donizetti’s popular tale of love, death and madness in the Scottish Lowlands.
Then, in the new year, comes a breathtaking sequence of staged role debuts at the Zurich Opera House (Pylade in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride); the Royal Opera House in London (Alfredo in Verdi’s La Traviata); and the Opéra Bastille in Paris (the Duke in Verdi’s Rigoletto).
“I’m very lucky to be singing these roles, in these houses, with these colleagues,” Antoun said.
Many Montrealers will remember the tenor from his local appearances in the 2000s. The Alfredo in London is, in a sense, a second debut; Antoun sang the role in concert for Michel Brousseau and his Orchestre Philharmonique du Nouveau Monde.
Soprano Kathleen Kim takes the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor. Mario Bahg is in the background.
John Mahoney /
As the 2010s progressed, the gigs were more likely to be in Vienna, Brussels, Amsterdam or New York. In 2017 Antoun appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel, having already sung in this opera in London and Salzburg. As a former double major in composition and voice at the U de M and a graduate of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, Antoun is well equipped to learn demanding contemporary scores.
Despite all the recent and imminent triumphs, Antoun’s repertoire is almost as remarkable for what it does not include as what it does. Gounod’s Faust and Don José in Bizet’s Carmen are examples of parts he has declined. He has even turned down Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Bohème.
“Those are roles where the orchestra is very large and you have to get through in the medium of your register,” Antoun explained. “I think in terms of lyrical. Lyric and subtle.”
Be advised that these terms do not preclude passion. “Italian opera takes no detours,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean it can’t be refined. That’s what I love about (Lucia). The orchestra is light, and with the maestro (the Italian conductor Fabrizio Ventura leading the Orchestre Métropolitain) we can make all these colours. We can pull back the voice in the high register, when the words are tender.”
Now 42, Antoun is pleased to have found a path away from the Mozartian rut he once found himself in. “Mozart is meandering,” he said. “It’s like driving a car on a sinuous road. You’re always negotiating turns.” Bel canto and Verdi give him a chance to use his high range to full effect.
Technically a resident of Laval, Antoun will take a flat in Paris in the new year, with his wife and their eight-year-old son. As a singer busy in Europe, he sometimes finds himself in the midst of a much-modernized production. Directors are in charge. Singers have nothing to say.
“I’m not Jonas Kaufmann,” Antoun said, referring to the star German tenor. “And even Jonas Kaufmann doesn’t create that kind of trouble.
“But I would not be naked on stage. And I don’t particularly enjoy productions where I’m wearing jeans and a T-shirt. I think people come to the opera because they want to escape. They want to go back in time. They want lyricism. And lyricism resides also in the costumes.”
Good news: The Lucia production from the Utah Opera, as overseen by the Canadian director Michael Cavanagh, is traditional. The petite Korean soprano Kathleen Kim takes the title role and the stalwart Canadian baritone Gregory Dahl is the villainous Enrico. Montrealers might recognize the Arturo, Mario Bahg: this South Korean tenor was the winner of the 2018 Concours musical international de Montréal in the aria category. He is taking time off from the Metropolitan Opera Lindemann Young Artist roster to make his professional debut in Canada.
AT A GLANCE
Lucia di Lammermoor is presented Nov. 9, 12 and 14 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 17 at 2 p.m. in Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier of Place des Arts. For more details, see operademontreal.com.