TSO November 14th

I was fortunate to attend the Toronto Symphony Orchestra concert tonight, thanks to the kindness of my friend Bill Denning.  It was the first time I’ve seen them in a few years, and my first encounter with Peter Oundjian, their Conductor & Music Director.


Artistic Director & Conductor Peter Oundjian

I’ve never liked Roy Thompson Hall, although I confess it sounded better tonight than I remembered from my last visit.  We sat in the 2nd balcony, looking across at the acoustical baffling and hardware that resemble the Mother Ship that arrives at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  I wonder if they were to play Williams music if the hanging baffles would come to life and flip over like the one in Spielberg’s movie…?

No maybe they better not risk it…

I’ve been hanging back for awhile, reading the programmes each year, looking for concerts that appeal to me.  Tonight, through the serendipity of a friend I discover that maybe I’m ready to come back to the TSO.

Oundjian is a smooth talker onstage, giving a little speech before the concert, MC-ing a post-concert talk-back session, and ably manoeuvring his soloists around the stage throughout.  I heard one of his commercials on 96.3 this morning, and for once thought, aha I am hearing that tonight.  The campaign makes sense to me, that Oundjian is part showman, part musician, part teacher, and as far as I can tell, enjoying it all immensely.

“I am a lucky guy.”  It’s a mantra I employ that, if you say it often enough, is self-fulfilling.  Tonight it was certainly true.

The program is filled with threes.  We heard three different works. Two works were in three movements (plus a final one with a more usual four movements).  And without question for the first two compositions the number “3” is especially important:

  • Triptyque by Pierre Mercure
  • Beethoven’s “triple concerto” op 56
  • …and Shostakovich’s 12th Symphony

Setting aside our triple fantasy for the moment, let’s talk about the one piece I could only hear from the TSO; which was every bit as marvellous as I’d hoped.  Yes I could get Beethoven from Tafelmusik –and would rely upon them if I could (but they don’t program it nearly enough in my opinion)—and could perhaps turn to an ensemble such as Esprit Orchestra for Mercure.

But the big massive works for big massive ensembles (ie the Shostakovich symphony)?  That’s supposed to be what we come to the TSO for, to hear important works for large ensemble.  I want Mahler, Richard Strauss or Stravinsky, and Berlioz, and the TSO needs to deliver such works.

Now of course they may not agree, as they seek to build an audience.  Their idea of what they must do is very different than mine, and I don’t presume to lecture; I merely know what I like.  In my annual glance through their brochure I haven’t seen enough of this kind of music, scores that no one else will perform.

Tonight?  I am a happy camper.

Oundjian leads the Shostakovich with conviction, the players clearly energized much more than they’d appeared for either of the other pieces.  In the talk-back Oundjian had said that he wanted an orchestra that was mindful in every moment they were playing (not his words, but my rough paraphrase): a wonderful ambition, but unfortunately, not one that was met tonight, considering how much more energy I felt in the concluding work.  But maybe that’s not fair, when the ensemble seizes the moment and makes the music their own, as they did on this occasion.

In such a big work –where the stage was almost filled and many players had solo work—everyone seemed energized, committed throughout.  No wonder it sounded so good, a brisk reading of great clarity and simplicity.

The Mercure work is a classic illustration of something R Murray Schafer spoke of in his book My Life on Earth and Elsewhere:

…the work was to be what Canadian composers call a ‘piece de garage’, intended for performance while the patrons were parking their cars.

So there we were, listening to a ten minute piece to cover the late arrivals.  Yet it was quite wonderful, in places darkly mysterious, full of distant drums & rumours of war.  As a roughly contemporary piece with a tonal vocabulary that could be understood as a kind of modernism, it’s certainly relevant as context for the Shostakovich.

Sandwiched between as contrast was the Beethoven work with soloists Shauna Rolston, cello, Jonathan Crow, violin, and André Laplante, piano.  Laplante was particularly delicate throughout, careful to never cover the other soloists. I was pleased by the all-Canadian contingent, including Crow conscripted from the ranks of the orchestra, where he’s usually concertmaster.   It’s a work that isn’t perhaps as well known as it could be, tuneful and upbeat.

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