Oundjian’s Carmina Burana with TSO

Tonight’s concert brings us to the end of the Toronto Symphony season, and of their Decades Project, an exploration of music & art led by Peter Oundjian.  There’s an additional poignancy when we notice that the TSO’s Oundjian decade and a bit is also coming to an end.  Oundjian’s tenure enters its twilight (his final season in 2017-18 still to come) with an unmistakable air of valedictory already in the air.

THISONE_RESIZED_Nicola Benedetti, Peter Oundjian @Jag Gundu

Violinist Nicola Benedetti with the TSO and conductor Peter Oundjian (photo: Jag Gundu)

One can’t help wanting to draw conclusions, especially after hearing two fitting pieces:

  • A violin concerto played by a young soloist seemed apt recalling that Oundjian is himself a violinist as well as a mentor
  • A big celebratory piece, namely Orff’s Carmina Burana was a natural outlet for the impulse to have a season-ending party

He told us upon his 60th birthday that he’d stop dying his hair.  Yes Oundjian is so much more relaxed up there, so at ease, particularly when he’s leading a big complex piece such as the Carmina Burana, holding the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, the Toronto Children’s Chorus, the TSO plus three soloists perfectly together.  Watching the rapturous reception for this work reminded me a bit of a rock concert, both because of the huge applause, and yes, because I had a sentimental flashback to undergraduate days listening to this piece high, a work as legitimate as stoner music as anything by Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd.

We watched three wonderful soloists.  I hope the TSO asks Phillip Addis back after such an  intelligently sung debut.  I watched him marshal his resources through the “Estuans interia”, a series of (I think) high Gs, and a final powerful A. He’s a theatrical singer who happens to possess a lovely sound and flawless intonation.  When Daniel Taylor stepped forward to give us his “Cignus ustus cantat”, a deadpan swan-song assisted by the chorus, the energy level went up another notch.  Soprano Aline Kutan whom I recall hearing with the COC a few years ago brought her beautiful colour to the unforgettable lines at the climax of the work.

Before intermission we had a very different sort of work. Nicola Benedetti was soloist in Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto #2.  Like the Orff work it’s another piece from the 1930s, and as Oundjian explained at the beginning of the concert, a work receiving its first Toronto performances this week.  I can’t help thinking about the objectives of the Decades Project, and the wish that this become a more or less permanent feature with the TSO.  Ideally we need to regularly hear new works –both the ones that haven’t been played here before and those commissioned by the TSO—in the years ahead.  Whatever we’re hearing, the process of educating the listeners and creating a vibrant community for music is an ongoing conversation that is spurred on by programming like this, where history of the music is front & centre.

Benedetti and Oundjian made a strong account of this work, one with a wonderful cadenza at the end of the first movement, and lots of stunning extended chords in the orchestra that wouldn’t be out of place in a Gershwin piece.  I’m not saying it’s jazzy but some of those sonorities were stunning, and Oundjian always kept the orchestra softly out of Benedetti’s way, allowing her to offer a sensitive exploration of the piece.

But the key thing is that the TSO follow up on this pattern, that Oundjian is a kind mentor, a generous leader who shares the spotlight.  His instincts are very good, a natural teacher who suggests the ideal template for his successor, huge shoes to fill even if he’s not such a big guy.  This kind of curatorial wisdom, leading us to explore the connections and resonances between different compositions must not end but go on in the decade to come.

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Dame Ethel Smyth: Suffragette

I’ve seen two operas by Dame Ethel Smyth presented tonight by Opera 5 under the heading “Suffragette”. The title feels especially apt for a composer I’d never encountered before, who was not only active in seeking the vote for women (making her an actual suffragette) but who was daring creatively as well, writing her own libretti for her operas, a trail-blazer of a composer who lived from 1858 to 1944. Opera 5 are to be commended for bringing someone new before us on the stage, and apt for a company whose leadership—Artistic Director Aria Umezawa and General Director Rachel Krehm—is female.

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Alexandra Smithers as pub-owner Mrs Waters (photo: Emily Ding)

Tonight’s program included two works : Fête Galante (1921-22) and The Boatswain‘s Mate (1913-14), presented at Theatre Passe Muraille’s main space. Opera 5 gave us quite a spectacular presentation, using a small orchestra of a dozen players, led by Evan Mitchell.

Of the two operas, The Boatswain’s Mate takes up the biggest portion of the evening. While it’s an earlier work than Fête Galante (which has some ambitious elements to its dramaturgy that are genuinely experimental for its time) I’m sure Opera 5 presented them in this sequence knowing that Fête Galante is not entirely successful in its experiments, not as good a piece of theatre as the rollicking Boatswain’s Mate, a work that includes some dialogue, and numbers with full stops allowing for audience applause. And applaud we did, delighted with the performances.

The Boatswain’s Mate is clearly the work of a feminist, a story ahead of its time. When we meet Harry Benn (Asitha Tennekoon) , who seems sympathetic in his desire to marry pub owner Mrs Waters (Alexandra Smither), we might mistake him for the hero of the story. But both the composer and Mrs Waters have other ideas, as neither the story nor its genre follow the usual expectations. We meet Ned Travers (Jeremy Ludwig), who conspires with Harry to fake a robbery designed to persuade Mrs Waters that she needs Harry. But they’re surprised by the independence of Mrs Waters who refuses to fit anyone’s stereotype, meeting the burglar with a bat and lots of backbone.  It’s much funnier than what I’ve described here, a very physical story vividly brought to life by Director Jessica Derventis. In the middle of the night Mrs Waters has to deal with a crew of pub-crawlers, but they’re no match for Mrs Waters.

Smither has ample opportunity to show off both her voice and her dramatic skill, although her numbers aren’t quite as interesting as what Smyth gives poor love-struck Harry to sing, and Tennekoon boldly rises to the challenge.

In Fête Galante Smyth writes in a more advanced through-composed style without any full stops or divisions for numbers, but I found that the resulting music is not as interesting, in the trade-offs she made to unify the whole. The story, too, is challenging to pull off, a somewhat melodramatic tale incorporating commedia dell’arte elements reminding me a wee bit of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci in the way illusion and reality collide in a story of love & jealousy. The singing was lovely even if the requirements of the score did not push the singers as far as The Boatswain’s Mate. But Elizabeth Polese and Jonathan MacArthur were very effective together, and Alan MacDonald showed off a lovely baritone sound.

“Suffragette”, consisting of these two works from Dame Ethel Smyth will be repeated at Theatre Passe Muraille’s main space June 24 & 25.

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#Odysseo in Mississauga: Celebrating what it is to be Canadian

Tonight it was my great pleasure to witness the opening night of Odysseo in the big tents set up beside the Hershey Centre in Mississauga, presented by Cavalia.

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Finale of Odysseo (photo: Lynne Glazer)

Cavalia is a company led by Normand Latourelle that features live music, dance, acrobatics, aerials, and above all, horses, either ridden or led as part of the multi-media show that is Odysseo.  The sample in their trailer (at the bottom) might mislead you, as much of the musical flavour of their performances is very gentle but passionate, punctuated sometimes by something more dramatic when there’s suspense.

There are 50 performers in various disciplines in the show, sixty-five horses, and a huge complement in support.  Tonight was my third time seeing the show, having seen it twice in its previous incarnation in the east end of Toronto a couple of years ago.  I like it better each time I see it.

The evening was framed by an announcement from Latourelle at the beginning of the show: that he had welcomed 800 refugees as his guests, drawing a warm ovation of welcome.  I got a bit teary eyed when, after a few welcome messages, the usual instruction to turn off our mobile phones and to refrain from taking flash photos because it would startle the horses,  we were then hearing the same instructions in what must have been Syrian.  I couldn’t help noticing that this show, just a few days before our 150th birthday, captured so much of what it means to be Canadian. While there are displays of virtuosity and skill, there are no real class distinctions.  Whether you are the one on the horse leaping over the bar, or the guy standing there holding the bar for the horse to leap over, you’re part of the team. The riders high-five the guys holding the bars.

This is true team-work and without any sense of vanity.  And while there are perhaps more males than female, it’s a multi-racial cast.  2017 or not, the one gender gap is among the horses who are all males (either stallions or geldings).  But we don’t see cruelty. We see horses running without bridles, without much visible evidence of control –there are some tiny whips although I didn’t see them used very much—and with a breath-taking sense of freedom.  The horses seem as though they could go anywhere they wish. So of course it’s that much more impressive—and beautiful—when the horses stay in perfect lines, obey their handlers, and look beautiful.

Let me back up to the most obvious thing about Odysseo.  This is a happy show. You watch beautiful animals, stunningly beautiful humans –specimens rippling with muscle—jumping or flying or riding.  There is no suffering, no sadness.  Yes there is the suspense generated watching the performers, who risk life and limb, sometimes hanging perilously from fast-moving horses, sometimes flipping and flying through the air.   But the longer you watch the more you see the harmony between human and animal, between the members of the team onstage, and between the parts of the show (sets, CGI projections, music, and performers) brought together so smoothly.

They say the exception proves the rule. And so tonight. There were two remarkable moments, when things weren’t quite clockwork precise, possibly because this is opening night. And the slight departure from perfection shows a lot about this company and their values:

1) At one point an acrobat, flipping over a bar didn’t quite make it. The ones holding the bar let go instantly. They helped up the acrobat, who shook it off, got up, waved and the made his exit. It was nicely handled

2) At one point one of the horses mounted another horse, perhaps unable to resist his equine compadre.  No harm done. They were given some space, and –not sure how, whether it was whistles or running beside—the horses found their way back into the proper formation. No harm done.

They’re all so friendly.  At one point we were singing about world peace, which seems like the most natural thing in the world.  The acrobats had something like a dance-off, competing against one another with ferocious flip & jumps, and getting us to sing along with them.  But while there was a bit of friendly competition it’s a loving thing.

Odysseo will be in Mississauga for at least a few weeks.  I would like to see it again, as it’s the happiest presentation I’ve seen in awhile.

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Life Reflected

Tonight I enjoyed the sole Toronto performance of Life Reflected at Sony Centre, a multi-media anthology produced by the National Arts Centre Orchestra, celebrating four Canadian women as part of the Luminato Festival.  Google tells me that Life Reflected was first presented in May at the NAC, produced and directed by Donna Feore, conducted by Alexander Shelley: an ambitious undertaking, however you choose to understand it.

These four women were the subject of a segment:

  • Alice Munro
  • Amanda Todd
  • Roberta Bondar
  • Rita Joe

Each one represents a story told in a different way, although I understand this primarily as a pretext for the NAC Orchestra to commission original compositions for orchestra:

  • Zosha di Castri composed Dear Life, employing words by Alice Munro, spoken on tape by Martha Henry with soprano Erin Wall
  • Jocelyn Morlock composed My Name is Amanda Todd
  • Nicole Lizée composed Bondarsphere
  • John Estacio composed I Lost My Talk, featuring Monique Mojica and dance on film choreographed by Santee Smith
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I Lost My Talk from Life Reflected (Photo: Fred Cattroll)

While the four pieces are linked by design elements, they are quite different, one from another.

Dear Life is like a melodrama –thinking for example of Schönberg’s Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte—where a text is spoken while accompanied by orchestra to illustrate or amplify. We hear Martha Henry’s wonderful speaking voice, while Erin Wall sings something like scat (as in jazz) although some of what she sang is verbal.  I think di Castri was charged with composing something in support of the text and not to compete with it: which she accomplished very respectfully.

My Name is Amanda Todd made me cry, a very simple idea perhaps, but a colossal challenge for composer Morlock, whose score holds your attention for its entire ten minutes. At times the score employed patterns, sometimes shorter phrases, but a very beautiful piece for orchestra.

Bondarsphere was another typical Lizée work, in its inter-connected and self-referential writing, sometimes reminding us of the workings of technology, sometimes being more conventionally orchestral.  We see globes in space, globes shown on TV screens or the globes that float on staff-paper.  The score takes chunks of text –for instance from CBC broadcasts—and uses them as departure points for playful explorations, sometimes in the realm of sampling, sometimes via imitation.  I was reminded of the last Luminato piece I saw in this space namely Einstein on the Beach, complete with another trippy launch of a spaceship every bit as thrilling as what Glass gave us. And while the score seems to want to drill down on its sources, analyzing and sampling and echoing, we do build to something like a diapason from the brass near the end.  This piece drew a huge ovation, although I think we may have missed the actual end of the piece, which went on thoughtfully for awhile after.  I am so in awe of her work, wow I wish I could hear it again (although I need another ‘wow’ for the visuals from NORMAL accompanying the piece, a tidy marriage between all elements).  

Estacio’s I Lost My Talk was the piece of theatre we needed to see at the conclusion.  If Life Reflected is a sesquicentennial project then its credibility rests heavily on this last piece, which is a beautiful reminder of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Mojica says so poignantly:

“I talk like you
I think like you
I create like you”

This is the context for cultural genocide, the viewpoint of a child forced to speak the language of the colonizing culture rather than the one into which she was born.  At one point she says something like (this is a paraphrase, whereas the above is a quote) “help me find my talk”.  At first glance I was wondering –in light of the recent conversations about cultural appropriation—how Estacio could be writing this music and how could they dance ballet –which is to say, European music and a European theatrical form? Ah but then it dawned on me, that this is perfectly apt for the lament of one who is telling us that she is speaking to us in OUR language not hers.

I wasn’t surprised to see Donna Feore’s name on this piece.  I enjoyed her work in Stratford recently.

I hope some or all of this can be produced again, at least as concert performances of the music, which is all excellent.  Perhaps they will make a DVD.  The NAC should be proud that they commissioned a full evening of original music. Much as I am grateful for the two minute sesquies we’ve been hearing, this is what a commitment to Canadian culture looks and sounds like.  Bravi..!

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TSO: a decade’s lessons

The Toronto Symphony’s Decades Project has taken the orchestra and its listeners on a gradual tour through history.  As we’ve progressed forward 10 years at a time we’re less and less able to escape, as more and more we confront the underpinnings of our own time, never more so than in last night’s visit to the 1930s, featuring Barber, Bartok and Weill, plus a world premiere of a short piece by Andrew Balfour.

While the first three items on the program were orchestral pieces, the stage configuration had us anticipating the fourth piece, to come after the interval:

  • Kiwtetin-acahkos—Fanfare of the Peoples of the North, world premiere (Balfour)
  • Adagio for Strings–1936 (Samuel Barber)
  • Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta–1936 (Béla Bartók)
  • The Seven Deadly Sins—1933 (Kurt Weill / words by Bertolt Brecht)

I haven’t thought of Roy Thomson Hall as a stage before, but that’s precisely what we were invited to do through the first works we heard.   Theatre is often a matter of trade-offs, of pragmatic choices, and so we looked at the orchestra led by Peter Oundjian, a bit further away across an empty strip of real estate that glowed with the promise of what was to come.  Yet it was a positive in so many ways, as the concentration of the players upstage made for an interesting acoustic.  Because the players had a wall directly behind them and an open floor to bounce sound, I heard them with great clarity, even if the tightness of the spacing meant one couldn’t always see them too clearly.

When we came to the Brecht-Weill, we were in a kind of mixed medium space fitting for a hybrid that isn’t easily defined. It’s a sung ballet, but the TSO also employed some film mixed with the projection of surtitles, and deployed the performers in various spots around the auditorium.

RESIZED Peter Oundjian, Wallis Giunta, Jennifer McNichols (@Jag Gundu)

Peter Oundjian leads the TSO while the two Annas Wallis Giunta and Jennifer McNichols take the stage at Roy Thomson Hall (photo: Jag Gundu)

The work was ahead of its time, possibly because the personnel weren’t there in the 1930s, the way they are now.  What would Brecht & Weill have made of Cats, or more relevantly, how might they have employed performers who were genuine triple threats in this work?   The TSO opted for opera performers plus one dancer, sometimes choreographed.  Hybrid works –and let’s not forget that opera and ballet are both hybrids –sometimes have us wondering about the parents and influences, as we wonder about the choice of emphasis.  Opera struggled for centuries with questions about text vs music, often with liberal sprinklings of dance & other spectacular effects.  The TSO deserve credit for their ambitious programming, once again turning to Joel Ivany & his collaborators as they did last season for the Mozart Requiem.

There’s so much richness in the work, that it challenges the viewer / listener.  I didn’t know where to look or on whom to focus.  One could simply watch and listen to Wallis Giunta singing and occasionally dancing as one of the two Annas; or watch dancer / choreographer Jennifer Nichols dancing and occasionally speaking as the other Anna.  There is so much going on in the work to begin with, and then when you add movement, acting on multiple places onstage (for instance, when both Annas are there to confuse us with the ambiguities of their similarity / difference), one can focus in many places, not to forget that one might simply listen, while watching the TSO and Oundjian working away upstage, not unlike the dance-band you’d see in an old Hollywood musical.

And nevermind the 1930s, there were many resonances with the recent past, meaning the creators:

  • Ivany and Against the Grain Theatre did Seven Deadly Sins in a smaller space, about five years ago
  • Giunta did some of this in a concert setting four years ago
  • And I can’t help recalling two programs choreographed by Nichols, where she danced as a kind of doppelganger of a vocalist, once in 2014, and again with CASP in 2015

Our attention was torn between the dramatic elements, the choreographed elements, and the pure joy of watching and listening to Giunta interpret the songs, which was aided considerably by some sort of electronic support.  This freed the orchestra to play more or less at will –which was ordained once they decided to face Oundjian upstage, who was unable to really watch or follow; but the way the levels were set, the men were relegated to backup singer status at times.  Ivany’s staging brought out the dark humour in the text, which is (or should be) steeped in the class struggle of the 30s, now somewhat quaint in light of the current brouhaha south of the border.  Karl Marx seems as faraway as Frank Capra, a relic for our sentimental fantasies.  In other words I would have welcomed more political edge, but I suppose the danger in this medium is that one can slide into something bombastic & obvious, whereas Ivany and Nichols kept things very subtle.  The best moments gave us a kind of cabaret sensibility.  I can’t help thinking that this was a work created ahead of its time, that deserves to be done more often, to become more familiar.

I should spare a moment to speak of the pieces occupying the majority of the program.  We began with a wonderfully subtle Sesqui from Andrew Balfour, a work that I don’t want to underestimate, that seemed minimalistic in its two minutes of pulsing and brooding, never overdone. This was the least celebratory Sesqui I’ve heard yet, but given its Peoples of the North association, this is a thoughtful commentary in a year of self-congratulation.The familiar Barber piece came out of that upstage configuration quite well, the cellos situated far upstage but penetrating the texture easily, whether as a byproduct of the stage configuration or through Oundjian’s machinations.  The Bártók in the middle of the program was again a slightly disturbing effect, listening to the orchestra displaced by the space to be used in the Weill, and deployed (as Oundjian explained) symmetrically as two orchestras as per the score.  Was I listening more closely because I had to work a bit harder to see them, clustered upstage? I don’t know.  I may be projecting, but Oundjian seems very relaxed, like a kid still in school during the last week of school, grinning and without a care.  The TSO were totally responsive tonight, themselves seeming totally at ease.

The program repeats on June 15th, minus the Sesqui.

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Toy Piano Composers play with us as they launch CD

When you stop and think about it, it makes sense. We “play” our instruments right? Then surely all instruments are in a real sense toys, broadening the implications of Toy Piano  Composers, a Toronto collective of music makers who just launched their first album Wednesday night.

And can we somehow retain the magic of a child in its first encounters with their toy, in their exploratory play?

Questions like that were running through my head at this truly extraordinary event at the Ernest Balmer Studio.  There was the usual drinking & schmoozing, which are also playful impulses, but drives to which I can’t surrender when I have to drive: home to Scarborough that is.  But I certainly wanted to celebrate along with them.

The name “Toy Piano Composers” is more than jest, especially when you hear the sort of music we heard in tonight’s programme, all compositions found on the CD.

  • FISHER PRICE LAUGH & LEARN FUN WITH FRIENDS MUSICAL TABLE (Elisha Denburg – 2014)
  • Strange Gazes and Birdsong (Fiona Ryan — 2013)
  • clangor (Monica Pearce – 2013)
  • Walking (Chris Thornborrow — 2013)
  • Encore of FISHER PRICE LAUGH & LEARN FUN WITH FRIENDS MUSICAL TABLE
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It sounds as cute as it looks

We began the Denburg piece with something coming out of a Fisher Price toy, automated or perhaps preset for sounds / voices to be pumped out when you push a particular button.  And so we heard the cutesy voice from the Fisher Price.  And WOW you couldn’t script it better, when the toddler sitting in front of me ANSWERED, because the magic of that toy spoke to him or her.  The entire audience was galvanized by the experience, which takes the entire thing to its most existential level.  But this dialogue between organic and artificial sums up the entire night, if not the album as well, on a fascinating interface. Yes there was some of the post-modern edginess of sampling but if this was angry hip-hop it was the crankiness of someone needing their diaper changed. In other words we were in a very safe and self-aware place.

Denburg’s piece is a kind of meditative conversation between the instruments playing a bit like robots –in the sense of Rossini rather than sci-fi, retro music constructed into fast runs with a kind of comical Barber of Seville frenetic- mechanical flavor. [spoiler alert] We get a whimsical bit of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, counter-intuitively in the wrong key just to be even wackier.  Music is coming out of the instruments, and it’s not clear who is in charge, between the Fisher Price and the six players, who seem to be automated or robotic even as the whole thing is very playful and fun. I recall the magic in this very same space not so long ago (2014 as it turns out), when Tapestry gave us one of their workshops of incomplete works, in this case a bit of Nicole Lizée’s masterful adaptation (five minutes worth) from Capek’s R.U.R., the famous play that gave the world the word “robot”.  Both then and now, I feel that double-edged magic, that we are seduced by the automated music even as we are terrorized by the implications.

The next piece, by Fiona Ryan, also explored that threshold between the musical player and the more organic sound, this time from the realm of birdcalls generated artificially.  I am always grateful when “new music” finds a new way to explore realms that are genuinely beautiful, or to articulate a new kind of beauty.  When a flute seems to converse with one of those mechanical birdcalls, we’re in a funny area, perhaps a parody of one of those romantic virtuoso cadenzas such as you find in Norma or Lucia where the singer and an instrumentalist imitate one another, sounding a bit like birdsong, but mostly like a cadenza in a concert.  The discursive space this opens up is wonderfully thorny, as we may wonder just what this music really is, as far as its origin.

After the intermission – with lots more carousing, drinking and good cheer—we resumed with two more pieces.

clangor takes us to the interface of mimesis, where we are listening to sounds in a toy piano of all things, being juxtaposed with bicycle bells, and the lovely fading of those haunting sounds. While no one says anything is being imitated –as with the previous piece—I can’t help reading something into the sounds that resemble one another, close together in the composition, as though they’re voices learning from each other or perhaps even in conversation.   Again this is music for the investigation from first principles: as though one were a child.  And if we’re lucky that’s how we are able to hear.

And Walking is a powerfully virtuosic work, especially challenging for Daniel Morphy, the percussionist.  If I hadn’t seen it played live I would have wondered, but he was crisp & accurate throughout, bringing the audience to their feet for the biggest ovation of the night, admittedly for a work that challenged the entire ensemble as well
(The personnel from the CD: Pratik Gandhi, conductor, Tim Crouch, flute, Anthony Thomas, clarinets, Wesley Shen, piano/toy piano, Adam Scime, double bass.
Last night though,  special guests Stephanie Chua playing piano/toy piano/bicycle bells, and Suhashini Arulanandam on violin.).

As a bit of magic we heard an encore performance of the FISHER PRICE.

And so we heard four of the seven pieces on the CD (that was not only launched tonight but given to everyone who paid to get in).  I’ll give it a listen and tell you more in due course, particularly once I figure out how you can also buy a copy of the CD (that I received as part of my admission to the concert).

[to buy the CD try this link]

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TSO and Walton’s Decade

I can’t be the only one who made the connection, watching the Toronto Symphony tonight at Roy Thomson Hall.   It felt like a special concert.

Sir Andrew Davis was just announced this week as the TSO’s interim Artistic Director for the two seasons following the conclusion of Peter Oundjian’s tenure (while they search for his successor).  Is it just a coincidence that tonight’s program included one of the works used to christen the new Roy Thomson Hall back in 1982, under a much younger Andrew Davis?  Of course William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast is larger than life, so no matter what’s happening at the time, there will be a sense of celebration in the air.  The programming was made weeks ago but I can’t help wondering, did they already have this planned?  Davis once again –just like the concert last week—seems very much in command, the TSO seeming as responsive as a sports car with brand new tires on a dry road.  And I am sure Davis had a much better time of it in 2017 than in the launch three and a half decades ago, after the renovations addressing the acoustical weaknesses of RTH.  Even if it’s just a coincidence, there was a genuinely festive mood to the concert, and they didn’t disappoint us.

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Sir Andrew Davis (Photo: Jaime Hogge)

And speaking of decades, this was another of the concerts in the “Decades Project”, this one highlighting the decade of the 1930s.  Had I encountered this program three or more decades ago, I would have had a very different response than I did tonight, hearing music by Paul Hindemith, Alban Berg and William Walton.  At one time Hindemith & Berg seemed to be the future of music, while Walton would seem to be a stretch, as an exemplar of his decade.  Yet from the perspective of 2017, Walton seems every bit as influential: when you factor in film music.  Belshazzar’s Feast reminds me of a Bernstein, maybe a wee bit of Leonard but a whole lot of Elmer, thinking of film-scores such as The Ten Commandments or even The Magnificent Seven.  No there’s no logical reason why this Biblical cantata should resemble a film about bandits and gun-fighters, but Walton’s syncopated brassy sound has me thinking of Marlborough country, a sound heard in cinemas worldwide, and likely by far more people than have ever heard either Hindemith or Berg.

The TSO were joined by two choirs, namely the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the Huddersfield Choral Society, as well as baritone soloist Alexander Dobson.  Davis seemed to have a whale of a time leading the choirs and the TSO through this work with Biblical sources, that contains almost no spirituality that I could detect.  In this respect Walton’s score is true to his time, seemingly more intent on effects than in making a genuine connection with the religious meaning of the text.  I can’t help being reminded of the Pandemonium scene from Damnation de Faust, where Berlioz imitates what the minions of hell might sound like, when Walton gives us the rites of the Babylonians, plus a very lurid response from God, worthy of Cecil B Demille.  But if we cut Walton some slack –and let the orchestra have some fun playing this score—it’s an amazing thrill ride, ear candy if ever there was such a thing.  And thank you Andrew Davis for taking us along.

The first half of the concert was the more seriously musicological visit to the 1930s, a pair of contrasting works,  Hindemith’s Concert Music for Brass and Strings and Berg’s Violin Concerto.

I never understood why Hindemith didn’t catch on, a composer who always excites me with his command of orchestral colour and intriguing way of making old ideas new.  Concert Music for Brass and Strings is a playful exploration of sound that gave Davis reason to stretch a dozen brass players in an arc across the back third of the stage, sometimes barking sometimes snarling, always impressive, with roughly forty string players clustered at the front as if in refuge.  Hindemith always sounds to me like the sort of composer you would use to show off a sound system or to test a new concert hall, not unlike Belshazzar’s Feast, and Davis seemed to hold nothing back in putting them through their paces.

In sharp contrast to the Dionysian impulses in the Hindemith, Jonathan Crow unpacked the sweetest subtleties as soloist in Berg’s violin concerto.  Davis allowed details to be heard, restraining the orchestra for the most part while giving Crow space to play gently, in an interpretation sounding at times like chamber music for its delicacy.

 

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