Divergent objectives from TSO

For awhile now the Toronto Symphony has been offering a series of concerts organized around ten-year periods of history, in other words, their Decades Project. Some have been more illuminating than others, but for me tonight’s pairing was especially powerful, seeming to illustrate a kind of musical fork in the road.

As Peter Oundjian described it, you could see one part of the concert pointing to the past, and the other to the future. One work portrayed the tenderest emotions. The other? human sacrifice. One enacted a secret program rather than anything explicit, while the other was as subtle as being hit by a stick. One gave us a concerto, a celebration of foregrounded virtuosity, while the other subsumed all skill into the total effect. Or in other words, we began with Elgar’s Violin Concerto played by James Ehnes, and concluded with Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, both works conducted by Oundjian.

James Ehnes, Peter Oundjian 3 (Emma Badame photo)

James Ehnes violin, Peter Oundjian, leading the Toronto Symphony (photo: Emma Badame)

The contrast between the two works made this the best Decades program yet in my opinion.

When I turned on my laptop after getting home, I googled “effect of heat on acoustics”, seeing a few links confirming my suspicions: that both heat and humidity can make things totally wonky especially in the realm of classical music.

I did so because

  • this was the warmest TSO concert I’ve ever attended, a day with ambient temperatures around 30, and a humidex even higher.
  • There were some very strange effects in the hall

In the first movement of the concerto at times the TSO was drowning out the soloist even though he had lots of sound, plenty of oomph to his playing, particularly on his higher strings. I couldn’t help wondering whether Oundjian –standing a few feet away from Ehnes—could possibly have heard what we heard, sitting in the mezzanine. At times it was more a concerto for violin vs orchestra. I smiled when we got to the third movement passages where the orchestra gets out of the way, quiets down for some exquisite cadenzas, masterfully played. I’ve always heard Oundjian lead with great sensitivity, himself a violinist who surely cares about the result. I have to think he’s undone by Roy Thomson Hall, a space that tonight had the oddest effects. At times the strings –who are assembled downstage, closest to us—seemed to be a big pool of woofy sound enveloping everyone else, making all other details (eg woodwind solos) emerge as though coming through a fog.

Ditto with Le Sacre, and sacre bleu I might have said (an epithet I recall from childhood in comical send-ups, showing a French person cursing: and please excuse me that I have no idea what it actually means when you say this!). The same effect at times concealed finer details that should have been able to emerge. Oundjian seemed to lead a very committed performance, although at times the strings were all that was coming through, as even the massive brass was seeming remote, distant, as their fat sounds were clearly coming from way upstage, rather than emerging properly. The bass & kettle drums seemed to be the only ones who could cut through but that’s likely because they’re playing in an entirely different register, so low that they’re not clogged up by anyone else’s sonic residues.

Even so the audience ate it up, making me wonder if they were hearing something substantially different. Ehnes played superbly, the orchestra especially sympathetic in the last two movements.

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