Toronto Symphony and the music of change

I will eventually talk about the music performed at tonight’s Toronto Symphony Concert at Roy Thomson Hall but I must first observe a few things that were different.

At intermission I met two guys from Richmond Hill named Michael. Yes, Michael and Michael came to the concert on impulse, driving down the 404.

They told me they both like classical music but this was their first ever symphony concert, spent with the TSO tonight.

Unfortunately they weren’t in time for the beginning which meant they watched and listened to Beethoven’s Leonore Overture #2 on a monitor in the lobby, then were seated while the piano was moved in for the Mendelssohn Piano Concerto # 1.

They seemed to be enjoying themselves.


Michael and Michael at their first TSO concert

Wonderful as it was meeting and hearing from Michael and Michael, they were not the first thing in the concert that was new for me.

Jeff Melanson’s introductory talks have been a regular feature of the TSO for the last few months, themselves replacing  the intro talks Peter Oundjian used to give.

Tonight?  Neither Oundjian nor Melanson, but Vanessa Fralick, Associate Principal Trombone came out instead..!


Vanessa Fralick, Associate Principal Trombone of the Toronto Symphony

I wondered if Melanson was on vacation, but wow, how interesting that now we were hearing not from the CEO or the music director, not just an instrumentalist but a woman as well. Interesting because  (as i keep repeating  obsessively) Melanson aims to be the most innovative & inclusive orchestra in the world.

When I accosted him in the lobby with “aha you’re not on vacation” (yes Melanson clearly was present and i clearly have a gift for stating the obvious), i asked about letting someone else do the intro talk.  I wondered whose idea it might be, and Melanson confessed it was from one of his regular lobby circuits. It’s true, I‘ve accosted him myself (as I did tonight) on his orbits of the Roy Thomson Hall lobby. He seems to be genuinely curious about what the customers have to say. One of them politely said that while they enjoyed his little intros, how about letting someone else do it?

Apparently Fralick is the fourth so far. And they’re volunteers, given a chance to prepare.
And prepare she did! Fralick told a delightful anecdote about her life before the TSO, being conducted by Peter Oundjian when she was much younger, as well as time served as a Roy Thomson Hall usher.

Apparently section L6 is the best place to hear trombones!

Michael and Michael weren’t the only ones enjoying this, judging from the great response Fralick got from the audience. It’s great that we get a chance to get to know the players of the TSO.  Or as Melanson calls them “your TSO.”

Oh wait, there was also a concert. Yes I suppose I should mention that too, a concert that was once again sold out, a winning streak that they’ve been on for the last few months. It was a concert of romantic music, very much the music of change even as the two stories I told suggest that the place and the institution are genuinely undergoing transformation: a culture change.

It was perfectly encapsulated in the second movement of the Schumann 4th Symphony, a pair of exquisite solos from two of the young principals, namely Joseph Johnson’s cello solo in minor followed by Jonathan Crow’s violin solo in major. With Johnson, Crow and Fralick –just to name three—the orchestra is literally undergoing a culture change. The skill level of this orchestra has been raised with each successive arrival, making for a wonderful blend of youth and experience.

The program was well conceived, from the second Leonore Overture of Beethoven, to the 1st Mendelssohn piano concerto to the 4th Symphony Schumann. The three Leonore Overtures share many of the same tunes and dramatic effects, even as they proved somewhat futile in their tendency to steal the opera’s thunder, overtures so powerful that you almost don’t need the opera thereafter. While the Fidelio Overture is a much better preparation for the comic scene with which the opera opens, each of these Leonore overtures (NB Fidelio was called Leonore in its earlier incarnations) is a stunning piece to hear in concert. Conductor Louis Langrée led a stirring reading by the TSO, as one couldn’t miss the obvious rapport between the French maestro and the players of the orchestra.

Marc-André Hamelin then appeared to play the Mendelssohn, a work that I’ve never seen handled with such subtlety. It contains some of the same bombast as the Beethoven overture, in the powerful first movement particularly, before transitioning to something more lyrical in the second movement. In the final movement I was particularly impressed by Hamelin’s delicacy, putting me in mind for once of Mendelssohn’s Midsummernight’s Dream music, a resemblance I’ve never spotted before tonight, possibly because pianists don’t usually play with such transparency.

Langrée led a mostly spirited reading of the Schumann Fourth Symphony, one of those performances where you have to believe the orchestra was having fun. The last two movements were especially quick, yet the ensemble was tight. I’m hoping Langrée will be back.

Speaking of “new” March comes in with the New Creations Festival, beginning Friday March 5th curated by Brett Dean.

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