Back to music for loyal supporters of TSO

It’s been a difficult week. The Toronto Symphony’s players, tonight’s conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste, the would-be soloists Valentina Lisitsa and Stewart Goodyear, and the audience have in various ways been through an ordeal. Arriving at the concert tonight, we walked past perhaps a dozen placard wielding demonstrators chanting in support of freedom of speech & the originally scheduled soloist.

Demonstrators outside Roy Thomson Hall before the concert tonight

Demonstrators outside Roy Thomson Hall before the concert tonight

The other soloist has been on an emotional roller-coaster, first in his surprise invitation, and then cancelling in the face of harassment. Inside, burly security guards were in evidence. The concert was anything but routine, a day when people who don’t usually notice the TSO were talking about the events of the past week, and not in a good way.

The extra expense for an organization already in the red must be enormous:

  • Ticket-holders were offered refunds or a free ticket to another concert
  • New programs –with no mention of either soloist—were printed
  • The orchestra was paid to rehearse a work they won’t perform in public anytime soon.

But the performance of Mahler’s Fifth that I witnessed tonight was like a ritual affirming support for the Toronto Symphony, complete with a unanimous standing ovation the instant it ended, the crowd’s roar lancing the boil on the butt of this city.

With all the tensions in the air, the chance to play music must have been a huge relief. The first two movements, which are so full of pain & darkness, were electrifying, played with great energy. Saraste was coming back to an orchestra that he led in the 1990s, which likely still includes some players from that time, even though the ensemble has been reshaped by his successors.

I couldn’t help thinking, though, that this man had a plane to catch, and maybe wishes he could get on that plane tonight.  Surely he wants to get out of town, wants this ordeal to end. For all the work, the magnificent solo playing by the TSO, especially in the brass, in preparing this, the TSO in effect gave this concert away in their offer to refund tickets, somehow behaving as though the concerto –the shorter work– was the really important work.  Yes it’s true that both soloists have a big following, but Mahler’s 5th is hardly chopped liver.   Saraste? I thought he seemed to be very tightly contained, a very remote figure even as he sometimes erupted with enormous amounts of energy (but then again, perhaps i’m spoiled by Peter Oundjian? Saraste is the anti-Oundjian, stoic and remote, rather than effusive and chatty). Sometimes Mahler was well-served, in the delicacy opening the third movement for example. But I found much of the piece seemed rushed, a lot of sound without being connected to genuine feeling. And who could blame him? In the applause I thought his body language said he was embarrassed by the ovation, waving but without even the hint of a smile in evidence. It must have been painful, this strange week. There were some musical oddities, as for instance in the last big turn for home in the rondo, when the main theme is announced. The orchestra didn’t hesitate or even slow as the cadence leads us finally into the home key and the triumphant statement of the main theme.  No, they seemed to take the transition passage on two wheels as they dashed for the finish. It’s one of my favourite pieces of music, yet I hardly recognized it. It was the oddest performance, containing as it did so many wonderful solo moments, so much accurate playing.  This was genuinely brave and deserving of the ovation.

I wish I didn’t have to sound critical. I don’t believe the decision set a “precedent” (to use the key word found in pieces in both the Toronto Star & Globe and Mail) because of course the real precedent was the decision made by Peter Gelb to cave in to pressure, in removing The Death of Klinghoffer from the Metropolitan Opera’s schedule of high definition broadcasts a few months ago.  The cat’s already out of the bag.

The orchestra soldiered on in the face of a very unpleasant sort of scrutiny this week. Goodyear decided to pack it in, whereas the orchestra, who did all the preparation, were left with the one work on the program. Saraste must have felt particularly conflicted, having prepared the Rachmaninoff with the orchestra. To hear Goodyear’s report, their rehearsal a few days ago was a revelation, which doesn’t surprise me. But an orchestra isn’t to be confused with a bunch of laborers, who perform so long as you pay them. These are sensitive people, and morale couldn’t have been high this week.

But as Scarlet O’Hara once said, tomorrow is another day.

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