TSO: road to Miami

As I try to find a parallel to my experiences tonight, I’m thinking back to the hockey series I saw on TV in September 1972 (when Canada defeated the Soviets). It’s not hockey but music, and the only Russian involved was Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, a composer long dead.

The parallel may escape you. But at that time a bunch of fans went along to cheer their heroes on, something many of us watched on TV with envy. I wish I had been there.

Peter Oundjian with the Toronto Symphony January 7th

Peter Oundjian with the Toronto Symphony January 7th (photo: Michael Morreale)

But tonight it was as though I heard the Toronto Symphony with a fresh set of ears. The Knight Concert Hall where the TSO played tonight in Miami is a jewel of a venue, smaller than Roy Thomson Hall, and with a warmer acoustic, (matching the warmth of the applause) that offered up the performances with greater clarity than what we usually get at RTH. It’s delightful to be able to hear them so clearly.

There were three strong items on the program. We began with John Estacio’s Wondrous Light, a bold and brassy curtain raiser. I shouldn’t have been surprised, considering the energy with which Conductor Peter Oundjian bounced onto the stage tonight. Maybe what I saw was simply his enthusiasm or something designed to inspire & even goad his players, who had the day off Wednesday (and a leader wanting to be sure that his players answered the call). But answer they did. Parts of the composition that seemed to have a bit of a Latin feel that might have been congenial for the audience in a city with a substantial Spanish-speaking population. This is an accessible composition unlike what one usually encounters in a short contemporary piece to open a symphony concert.

After a break to reconfigure the orchestra – including the theatrical raising of the grand piano to the stage via elevator—we were on to Beethoven’s 4th piano concerto, featuring young Canadian Jan Lisiecki. Again, listening in Florida it was as though hearing the piece for the first time. I can’t imagine how radical this composition must have sounded on its first hearing, the piano coming in all alone to play that single chord, Lisiecki seeming especially eloquent in his opening statement. I call it that because he seems to speak when he plays. The performance was very rhetorical, a series of questions and answers back and forth between soloist & orchestra.

Every time I see him I think he’s getting better. The technique is rock solid of course, but there’s a sense of a genuine maturity in his interpretations. I’ve seen over-bearing conductors who push a soloist out of their comfort zone, and seem determined to be the boss, but it’s a great pleasure watching the interaction between Lisiecki and Oundjian at the podium, who is especially sensitive with young soloists.

 A lighter moment from rehearsal with Jan Lisiecki and Peter Oundjian (photo: Michael Morreale)

A lighter moment from rehearsal with Jan Lisiecki and Peter Oundjian (photo: Michael Morreale)

The dynamic range was extremely romantic, the orchestra very bold in their opening statement of the second movement, the piano very soft, in a passage sometimes compared to the encounter between Orpheus and the Furies of the underworld. In these utterances young Lisiecki was especially profound.

After intermission came a very different set of challenges, namely Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. If the only reason to program the piece were to hear Jonathan Crow’s solo violin, we ‘d be off to a good start, but there were a series of great solos, including cellist Joseph Johnson. This is sometimes called a theatrical piece, but what struck me tonight was that it’s above all, a piece about story-telling. Oundjian seemed to shape the various passages & episodes with the kind of boldness of a raconteur: which come to think of it, is something Oundjian sometimes does before concerts in Toronto.  And so instead of telling us stories verbally, it was as though he was shaping the stories from the 1001 Nights at the podium with his baton.

Jonathan Crow, Peter Oundjian and the Toronto Symphony (photo: Michael Morreale)

Jonathan Crow, Peter Oundjian and the Toronto Symphony (photo: Michael Morreale)

When the audience clamored for more, the TSO obliged with a powerful reading of the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

Tomorrow’s a bus-trip to Daytona Beach, a concert in the evening, and this enthusiastic fan will be tagging along.

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