London Calling: Toronto Summer Music Begins

Tonight’s concert kicked off Douglas McNabney’s final season as artistic director of the Toronto Summer Music Festival. “London Calling: Music in Great Britain” is the theme of the festival. Mother Nature even got into the act, offering us a proper English downpour as we emerged afterwards.

Douglas McNabney photo (Bo Huang)

Douglas McNabney (photo: Bo Huang)

Over the next three weeks we can encounter not just composers of Britain but composers from abroad who came there, such as Handel, Haydn or Mendelssohn, as well as composers known to have had momentous concerts in England, such as a historic 19th century concert of Beethoven string quartets that McNabney described, a concert that’s to be re-enacted. In addition to the concerts, one can hear lectures, workshops and more over the next three weeks.

Tonight was titled “English Music for Strings”, exploring “the Finest and Most Influential Pieces in English Repertoire,” a wonderfully conceived program:

  • Holst’s “St Paul’s Suite”
  • Britten’s “Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings”
  • Tippett’s “Concerto for Double String Orchestra”
  • Elgar’s “Introduction and Allegro”

We were presented with some of the glories of English composition over the past century, a series of pieces displaying the kind of resemblances one sees in a family album.

Conductor Joseph Swensen drew a sweet sound from the TSM Festival Strings, displaying an ear for melody & sensitivity to the many solo moments in the evening, while pulling them together into a cohesive ensemble.


Neil Deland

Neil Deland, the Toronto Symphony’s principal horn player and tenor Nicholas Phan gave a splendid account of the Britten Serenade. Accustomed as I am to light voices singing this piece such as Peter Pears or Robert Tear, I didn’t think I could be surprised by a voice going in an even gentler direction: but I was wrong. Phan made sounds that were always supported and strong even though at times he took the piece further in the direction of the upper register and even sounds that resemble falsetto. And yet he also gave us explosive power in other places, making for a sensitive and poignant account of the poetry in this work. I believe Phan showed new possibilities in the piece with his imaginative approach.

Deland played with admirable restraint, impossibly soft in the haunting Elegy, playfully agile in the Hymn that’s as quick as a scherzo, yet always showing off a marvellously well-shaped and controlled sound.  As the first and last sound we hear in this piece (the prologue and the offstage epilogue), Deland’s magical playing was for me the highlight of the evening.

After intermission Swensen and the orchestra seemed determined to show us that they could be just as virtuosic without soloists in the Tippett. The Adagio was especially beautiful, although all three movements showed genuine inspiration.

For more information about the Toronto Summer Music Festival, which continues until August 7th go to their website (click here).

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