The TSO 100, alongside the speedway 

Daytona Beach was the location for the latest instalment of the Toronto Symphony tour.  I heard them play at Peabody Auditorium, not far from the famous speedway that’s the site of the Daytona 500.  In speaking of the venue I hope I will make it clear why I need to talk about this.  It’s a theatre, rather than a concert hall, and seats  2 521 (Orchestra-1 518 • Loge-497 • 2nd Balcony-506)

Built in 1949, its space is very much a creature of its time, with advantages & disadvantages.  The reverberation time is remarkably brief, the sound fairly dry.  Thursday night? There was lots of wood in the last space where i heard the TSO, and at times the wood sucks up the energy, damping noise and harsh attacks, the same way that air-brushing can remove flaws, and help make an aging movie-star look young again. It was a flattering acoustic on Thursday, where we couldn’t fully hear the music.

But on Friday the TSO were playing on the stage of a proscenium arch theatre, which meant that they were raised above anyone in the front of the orchestra; luckily I was about 20 rows back, allowing me to see and hear perfectly (except for my view of the conductor during the concerto, blocked by the lid of the piano).  But we were in a space with hard walls that bounce the sound, a theatre designed to be a multi-purpose space.  I understand that a production of Aida will be played there in awhile, whereas a concert hall has space for musicians but no stage machinery, the musicians thrust forward into the same acoustic space as the listener (and with no proscenium arch framing the view).  For anyone seated in a good seat (as I, sigh, certainly was), the sound was in a sense unforgiving.

Here’s the thing.  I could hear the scratch of rosin on the bows, the movement of chairs on the stage floor, the breathing of players, and I think I heard every wrong note. The energy coming out of that relatively small box – the theatre space—was enormous, especially given the Olympian programming choices.  Every blemish on the surface of the TSO’s sonic bubble was in evidence.

Ah but there were no blemishes.  Or in other words, no wonder Peter Oundjian was grinning tonight.

I should add that this was hardly a day when we might have expected perfection. The bus ride was delayed, meaning that the players were tired, and did not get their usual rehearsal before the concert, which –as luck would have it—was scheduled to begin early, accommodating 300 school children.  I wonder if that created a sense of urgency.

Did they perform differently tonight?  I can’t be sure, because the performance space is so different, the acoustic generating not just my different impression, but certainly a whole new experience for everyone involved, especially Peter Oundjian, listening and leading on the podium.

Peter Oundjian soaking up some of that Florida warmth, aka applause after the concert (Photo: Michael Morreale)

Peter Oundjian soaking up some of that Florida warmth, aka applause after the  earlier concert (Photo: Michael Morreale)

I had the most intriguing sense of the conductor tonight.  We opened again with the explosive sounds of Estacio’s Wondrous Light.  I was reminded of the good old days of audio, when one would take a record to test the new systems one was hoping to buy.  Estacio’s crisp rhythms, charming phrases, and especially, his heroic brass would be a test for any speakers.  But instead of testing a sound system, I was calibrating the hall, so different from what we had yesterday.  Don’t disparage halls such as the Peabod-Aud, made of bricks and mortar, as wood is not the be-all and end-all acoustically, especially if misused (as I believe is the case in the Miami auditorium, where energy gets sucked up by the decorative wood). It’s true that the woodwinds, situated upstage sounded a bit remote in the Peabody, especially when the big string sections were playing: who were placed close to the sweet spot(s) of the hall.  Jonathan Crow and Joseph Johnson (concertmaster & principal cello respectively) as well as the rest of their sections came through powerfully.  Jan Lisiecki’s piano had such clinical transparency one could almost hear his fingernails on the keys (okay maybe I am exaggerating a bit); but where his ultra-romantic reading (of great contrasts) was dampened (as if air-brushed) by the gentle acoustic Thursday, this time everything came across (I’ve posted a separate analysis here).

Yesterday I mentioned how Peter Oundjian offers such thoughtful support of soloists during concerti, and it was so again tonight in Lisiecki’s reading of the Beethoven concerto.  But I’ll take it a step further tonight in recognition of how the orchestra played Scheherazade, specifically how they were led.

The piece is full of solos from all parts of the orchestra.  You may recall that this is a piece made up of stories.  The tale-teller behind The 1001 Nights is the harem girl Scheherazade, whose persona is signified through the solo violin, playing a theme that we hear many times in different forms throughout the long work.  Whenever Jonathan Crow had one of his solos Oundjian would cross his arms and in effect stand down as leader, allowing the solo to be freely enacted.  There was a moment tonight, possibly created by the lack of rehearsal, when Crow (at the latter part of the third movement) arpeggiates, a spontaneous eruption tonight that for the life of my sounded like a sobbing woman,  heart-broken.  I’ve never cried listening to this music before but i lost it this time.

At other times, you could see Oundjian smiling his encouragement at various players around the orchestra, some taking on their own solo across from a leader who had momentarily resigned his post to permit that character to take the stage.  When necessary –and there are many places where the rhythms and the developing drama require precise leadership—Oundjian steps back into the more conventional role.  But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that during the applause –fervent and wild as it was—that Oundjian never really let us clap for him, as he kept gesturing for someone or perhaps a section to take their bow.  It was as though he was leading one hundred soloists: which is where i got the reference in the headline to “The TSO 100”.

So in case I wasn’t crystal clear, the orchestral sound in the Rimsky-Korsakov was magical.  The violins and cellos were very strong from their location, the woodwinds harder to hear from their location (although their solos came through of course), and then the brass and percussion came through like lightning bolts.  The unforgiving acoustic was like an exposed stage where you could hear everything with pristine clarity: but they sounded perfect.

The challenge of such a venue might be worth pursuing from time to time, given the phenomenal performance tonight. I wonder for example how they’d sound at the Four Seasons Centre (even right on the stage).

I think they’d sound great.

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