Famous tunes at the TSO

And the beat goes on. While there may have been a change of leadership, the Toronto Symphony hot streak continues, with bold performances onstage & at the box office.

Sunday afternoon I attended the second of a pair of concerts with a broad assortment of different styles that might have been titled “Tuneful TSO”, including some of the most famous melodies one is likely to encounter at a symphony concert. No it wasn’t a pops concert, even if there were a couple of charming eruptions of applause between movements: something that I quite enjoy, especially when it’s warranted by the performance, as it was today.

The young American conductor James Feddeck led the TSO in this curious mix of compositions. On the one hand you might label it Germanic, what with Mendelssohn (selections from his music for A Midsummernight’s Dream) Handel (harp concerto), Wagner (“Ride of the Valkyries”) and Elgar (the “Enigma” Variations): the latter a composer who surely felt Wagner’s influence. Or would you call it English, on the grounds that—Wagner aside—Handel has been adopted as an English composer, while the Mendelssohn we heard was selected from his incidental music for a Shakespeare play? I wonder what input the young conductor had on this program, which had a very coherent feeling to it. We began and ended with powerhouse displays of trombones. And throughout there seemed to be a fascinating rapport between Feddeck and the orchestra, who seemed to be having almost as much fun as the conductor.

We began with the Wagner as a glib curtain-raiser, Feddeck perhaps pandering to the lowest common denominator in his quip that while the opera from which it’s taken is over four hours long, this might be the best 5 minutes.  Exxcuse me?  I’d say it’s not the worst 5 minutes so long as you include the vocals by the valkyries, but what we get is a ridiculously repetitive piece whose only redeeming feature is the way it showcases the players. I recall a professor decades ago saying that when Wagner wrote this he likely didn’t expect orchestras to be able to play it perfectly, that a slightly ragged sound in the strings would have added an air of wildness to the piece, a wildness that’s no longer evident when orchestras play as skillfully as this one. I love the opera, which I would never have investigated had I used Mr Feddeck as a guide. At this point I set aside my misgivings about negative commentaries (oh well… i forgave Bugs Bunny so i suppose I can forgive Feddeck), and his somewhat leaden tempo. But the slower speed does allow the players to relax somewhat, to really wail away in the climactic passages: as they did.

Talk about contrast..! The next item was about as far away as you could get. The roughly hundred players mostly vanished, as 30+ remained alongside Heidi Van Hoesen Gorton, the soloist in Handel’s harp concerto. We went from a loud celebration of war (whether you understand the piece for its operatic maidens scooping up dead heroes or the scene in Apocalypse Now, a ritual of killing) to something angelic. I was thrilled at how silent this audience became, hanging on Gorton’s every note, her highly dynamic reading of this concerto. I remember this piece for my frustration as a teen, having heard the tune partway through on the radio, hypnotized and tormented because I had no idea what I had just heard (has that ever happened to you?). It took me years to find it, one of the prettiest pieces, in a lovely recording by Judy Loman. In her interpretation Gorton elaborated the melody with ornaments, holding the audience in the palm of her hand.


Toronto Symphony harpist Heidi Van Hoesen Gorton (photo: Christopher Wahl)

When the TSO announced their program earlier this year, they stated their intention to make more use of the virtuosity in their midst: just as they did in employing their harpist – Gorton – as soloist in a concerto. The remainder of the concert continued to highlight the talent in this orchestra. Feddeck led very clearly articulated readings of three movements from Mendelssohn’s incidental music to Midsummernight’s Dream. As with the Wagner, I can’t help thinking of the cinematic associations, given that we’re in the midst of my film music course at the Conservatory, having recently looked at Korngold, who adapted this music in Reinhardt’s 1935 version of Shakespeare’s play (the one with Mickey Rooney and Olivia DeHavilland).


Toronto Symphony principal horn player Neil Deland

For me the highlight was the “Nocturne”, featuring a sumptuous solo from horn player Neil Deland.

And there were a great many more beautiful solo moments after the intermission, in the Elgar. The most impressive thing Feddeck gave us was his introduction, a charming lecture including short demonstrations from the TSO to illustrate his points, as he explained aspects of Elgar’s “enigma”, a comfortably informal presentation. Feddeck seemed very much at home with the TSO, and i believe the feelings are mutual. His expansive tempi, too, seemed guaranteed to please the orchestra, who had the time to properly build to climaxes. The audience ate it up.

Peter Oundjian returns this week with Angela Hewitt in a program of Bach & Shostakovich.

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