Tonight the Toronto Symphony played an all-Tchaikovsky program to a full house at Roy Thomson Hall, and the TSO make it feel like a genuine occasion. The audience loved the performances, first a concerto, then a symphony. And afterwards we were treated to cake & coffee to celebrate Peter Oundjian’s upcoming 60th birthday. The orchestra played happy birthday (and some of us sang along) to the conductor who quipped that now he won’t have to dye his hair.
The internet tells me his real birthday is on the 21st, which makes him a Sagitarrius, a great sign for a leader. Tonight Oundjian was his usual fascinating self. In addition to conducting, he gave a talk about audience behaviour, giving us a verbal entr’acte ostensibly to fill the time while the ensemble’s seating was radically reconfigured between the two works on the program, but keeping us spellbound the whole time.
Why are audiences now expected to keep silent between movements of a symphony or concerto? At one time people did everything but keep quiet, whether talking or clapping or calling for encores, or transacting business. And this crowd seemed to inspire Oundjian’s brief discourse on the topic, erupting between movements of the concerto and the symphony, as they sometimes do. And it was okay, because the TSO is far less pretentious than it was, letting their hair down. Jeff Melanson came out at the beginning –as he often does—to introduce the concert, informally riffing off an error on the PA (who had announced Melanson, only to have the acting concert-master appear instead), introducing himself as the acting concert-master. The TSO–meaning Melanson & Oundjian in particular– are doing a masterful job of breaking down barriers to popular acceptance such as those strictures on audience behaviour.
And then there was the concert, which was the actual reason for my headline. I had expected to like Jonathan Crow’s performance of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, and he didn’t disappoint, but I had not expected to be so completely bowled over by the symphony that followed.
There’s great value in putting a concertmaster into the role of soloist. You get to know the sound & style of your concertmaster. Your orchestra’s relationship to their concertmaster is grown & enhanced by such opportunities to hear his distinctive sound and by working with him in this way. And of course there’s also his good performance which might be the best reason of all. The fact Oundjian is a violinist likely helped in this big powerful work, the orchestra often entering into a dialogue with the soloist, seemingly without any distress. Crow negotiated the challenges of the concerto with ease, his singing tone filling the hall, giving us an exuberant performance. I am hoping to see more solos from the TSO concertmaster in years to come.
The other big item on the program is a work that the TSO will be taking with them on their upcoming tour in the USA, and that they played three times this week, namely the 6th Symphony of Tchaikovsky. I have to think that Oundjian sees this as the TSO’s calling card, which might explain why they sounded so good. While I love this symphony very much, the performance exceeded expectations.
The first three movements were taken at a bold pace, all three faster than what I’d consider usual, but this is what I prefer for anything that might be called romantic (thinking of composers such as Wagner or Mahler). The challenge when you go faster of course, is that it becomes harder for the instrumentalists to play some parts, harder to keep the ensemble together, and harder to be as expressive. That they pulled it off –brisk, clean, precise, and well articulated—led me to feel exhilarated after the third movement. Entering the last movement I was spontaneously tearing up all through the last movement, overwhelmed by what they’d played, by how much they had achieved. No I wasn’t thinking about the tour, just caught up in Tchaikovsky’s music and lost in thoughts about the composer’s life story, and what this symphony might mean, coming as it did at the end of his life. The TSO were particularly eloquent in the last movement, Oundjian offering a more expansive reading at this point, as though reflecting back on what came before (in the symphony, or in the composer’s life).
It’s very exciting to see how tight they’re playing right now, with a good combination of commitment yet relaxation. This wonderful performance –the best I’ve heard from the TSO in literally decades—is a great omen, and at the very least a lovely birthday present from the TSO to their leader.