Toronto Symphony – Pan American Rhythms

This weekend the Toronto Symphony began a summer of the arts celebrating the Pan Am Games coming to Toronto. There’s much more to come, for example…

  • Toronto Summer Music celebrate their tenth year with a festival titled “The New World” July 16- August 9.
  • The Art Gallery of Ontario open their Pan American arts show June 20th, namely Picturing the Americas.

The Toronto Symphony’s ambitious concert program was titled “Pan American Rhythms”.

Toronto prides itself for its multi-cultural variety, yet come to think of it, we seem to have more awareness of European & even Asiatic cultures (for example) than of countries in our own hemisphere: other than our neighbour to the south that is. Chances are it’s mutual, that while everyone knows USA, Canada’s ignorance of the arts & culture of the many other countries in the Americas is mirrored by their knowledge (or lack thereof) of our own culture. A concert like this feels like a step in the right direction.

There were six wonderful items on the program:

  • Torque by Gary Kulesha started us off in Canada
  • Oblivion by Astor Piazzolla took us to Argentina
  • “Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo” by Aaron Copland represented USA
  • John Williams’ “Overture to The Cowboys” was again USA
  • Concierto en Tango by Miguel del Águila represented Uruguay
  • Huapango by José Pablo Moncayo finished our tour in Mexico.

I wish Roy Thomson Hall had been full for what might have been the best concert I heard all year: both for its programming and the excitement of the performances, led by Earl Lee. Lee, RBC Resident Conductor with the TSO, cut a suave figure at the podium with very fluid baton movements. It may be heresy to ask, but would you rather hear something you love played only moderately well, or something you don’t really know played brilliantly? I think you can see the answer in the attendance (and the empty seats), as few would pick Kulesha, Piazzolla or even Williams over Mahler. While I heard Mahler twice from the TSO this spring, I enjoyed this experience much more. While it may be that the music is easier to play, the TSO played with a relaxed grace today, Lee finding the music in every piece. Each one felt like a possible highlight.

We began with Gary Kulesha’s Torque, a piece anecdotally linked to a car purchase, and no wonder considering the perpetual motion in this energetic curtain raiser, a wonderful warm up for the ensemble. Piazzolla’s Oblivion followed, yet another occasion to luxuriate in the sounds of Jonathan Crow’s violin solos, in an arrangement of sensuous tango music that was as languid and gentle, as the opening was hyper and powerful.

The opening half of the concert concluded with a confident reading of the familiar ballet music from Copland. Does it sound different when framed as a Pan American concert? I think so. Juxtaposed with Latin pieces, I felt a bit like an anthropologist among specimens of Americana, Kulesha’s piece included.

Composer John Williams  (is he Star Wars’ real genius?)

The opening of the second half had my jaw dropping. If the TSO were seeking to teach us something, the John Williams composition after intermission was like an echo of the Copland we had just heard. Where Copland’s score has a purity of rhythm & harmony to suggest artistic integrity, Williams more commercial idiom is transparent in its unabashed desire to please the ear. I may be a bit fixated on Williams, given that I will be teaching a course at the Royal Conservatory on his film music. But I wish the TSO would consider programming this way more often, where one can hear influences so clearly. I recall a concert a lifetime ago when we heard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben alongside R Murray Schafer’s Son of Heldenleben. Williams’ “Overture to The Cowboys” is one of several filmscores that owe a clear debt to Copland, not just as a favourite of Williams but perhaps also as a touchstone of what it is to be American. For comparison you might also look at Williams music for JFK, another movie that is first and foremost a movie examining what it is to be American.

Joseph Johnson (photo: Bo Huang)

Then came the item I had anticipated as the highlight, namely Concierto en Tango by Águila, played by TSO Principal Cellist Joseph Johnson. Where Crow has been eloquent chiefly through his exquisite fiddle-playing, today marked the second time I’ve heard Johnson addressing the Roy Thomson Hall audience, a role he seems to relish.

Johnson got a big laugh when he explained the rationale for finding this piece, namely “Facebook!” The composer presented himself, and after a behind-the-scenes conversation, the recently premiered work (commissioned by the Buffalo Philharmonic in 2012) was made part of the TSO’s Pan Am lineup, with Johnson as soloist.
Johnson & Lee took a different approach to the one heard in the BPO’s recording that I have been listening to this week. Where the BPO reminded me of Gershwin or Bernstein in their rigidly mechanical approach to Águila’s syncopated rhythms, this was a much more rhapsodic performance, organic in its flow. Johnson took a composition that sounded somewhat interesting on the recording and elevated it substantially, making a good case for the composer and his work, finding much more depth & subtlety in his reading.  In the BPO’s defense any new work takes several iterations to be truly understood, but unquestionably this was a quantum leap for Águila and his music. Well done!

Johnson’s encore was a fascinating choice to me as a student of popularity, virtuosity and how they work with an audience. Pardon me, I didn’t catch the name of the piece, which I believe was written for Johnson, and required the support of the other TSO celli in accompaniment. Johnson made a bit of an apology for the music perhaps because it is tonal & in a bluesy idiom, perhaps because we were not hearing a daunting encore by Bach or Paganini. I only wish music would get over this requirement to be difficult, and simply relax. Of course they sounded great, but I wish we could get the classism out of classical music.

Huapango, the concluding piece by Moncayo, was a bouyant conclusion to a concert with no weak spots.

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1 Response to Toronto Symphony – Pan American Rhythms

  1. susan says:

    I was in attendance for the Sunday Pan American Rhythms concert. I believe the encore piece played by Joseph Johnson is titled “Yo-Yo Joe” and composed by Matt Walker of the Nashville Symphony. I have to agree with your wish to see classicism (and all its associated formality) struck right out of classical music. I am neophyte (taking advantage of the TSO’s generous Soundcheck programme), and while everything from Stravinsky to Mahler is a novelty to me, I have to say that the concerts that I have most enjoyed are ones that stray from the repertoire. I remembered the lively performance of Wojciech Kilar’s Orawa more than Bruckner’s 7th. I feel the same about the COC; I subscribe to hear standards like Rigoletto and Tosca, but what ends up being more memorable, are the operas I hadn’t really heard of. Like Tales of Hoffmann, Ariadne aux Naxos, Hercules, and this year, Erwartung.

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