Toronto Symphony flex their muscles

There are weeks when the ensembles in town confuse and confound us with their crossover efforts, doing things we might not expect.  This is supposedly a good thing, when historically informed players with their lovely old instruments venture into a more recent century, or when the modern instruments play sometimes older than usual. This week, though, everyone seemed intent on staying close to home while offering up performances that almost declare their identity. Last night I was marveling at Tafelmusik’s mastery of Bach, Rameau and Handel: core baroque repertoire.

Tonight it was the Toronto Symphony’s turn, playing works from the past hundred years or so (give or take a decade). While the TSO can probably play just about anything, there are some works that won’t be performed by any other professional band in this town. I like Roy Thomson Hall best when the music we’re hearing is big and bold, filling the space with sound. Today and tomorrow, the TSO programmed works perfectly suited to the space and their talents, a signature offering that I would recommend without reservation, music that likely will only improve in its second performance as the orchestra gets even more comfortable with these challenging pieces:

  • Randolph Peters’ Butterfly Wings and Tropical Storms
  • Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, with a colossal bonus, in violinist Henning Kraggerud’s five minute “Variation Suite for cello & violin, played by Kraggerud & cellist Joseph Johnson (make sure you clap though! it’s an encore)
  • Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Symphony

Let me repeat, if you’re not busy tomorrow, go get a ticket to hear this concert. The hall was not completely full, possibly because people wanted to watch the Blue Jays beat up on the Yankees. While the empty seats are unfortunate for a concert of such excellence, they probably helped the acoustic, and bode well for anyone seeking a last minute ticket.

While the official beginning to the TSO season was Wednesday night’s Renée Fleming concert (that I missed because I was teaching) for me this is the real beginning. Yes Fleming has shown herself to be a virtuoso in some repertoire, but her Wednesday concert verged on pops with its Broadway numbers sung with a microphone, for which the orchestra was more of a glorified accompanist to a famous diva. But tonight? the orchestra had a chance to show us what they can do, flexing their muscles. That all three pieces show off the orchestra’s own virtuosi in thrilling solos made this a really wonderful opportunity to get the season off to a good start.

You may recall Peters as the composer of The Golden Ass¸ an opera with libretto by Robertson Davies that the Canadian Opera Company staged in the late 1990s. The score we heard tonight might be called impressionistic for its vivid colours, sometimes solidly grounded above square tonal chords that sound as though Peters composed at the piano (with more than a hint of the blues), before venturing into layers of busy textures frothing and bubbling.

The Sibelius Concerto again demonstrates for me that Peter Oundjian is perhaps best when leading the orchestra in a concerto, especially a violin concerto.


Violinist Henning Kraggerud with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra led by Peter Oundjian (Jag Photography)

I’ve seen this concerto done before, and it can be daunting because it’s so unique, with cadenzas and solos in unexpected places, big moments for soloist and orchestra but not matching the template we see from most other composers. In this case the composer’s originality isn’t bad, but can trip up the best of them. I heard something that felt fresh from Oundjian, who kept the big orchestra at bay throughout so that I could easily hear Kraggerud, whose brusque attacks and angular interpretation made Sibelius sound especially fresh as if newly conceived. While we heard plenty of the lyrical, this was a reading that was unafraid of the darkness in this work, that didn’t overdo the saccharine or the artificial sweetness that some violinists offer up.

As an encore Kraggerud and cellist Joseph Johnson gave a delicious performance of the violinist’s own “Variation Suite” for cello & violin. If you listen to this youtube performance, imagine it now played to perfection in the clever rhetoric of a witty give and take before us, Johnson standing tall (or more accurately sitting tall) in this unheralded moment of great beauty.

And then we came to the place where the headline really makes sense, the 2nd Symphony of Rachmaninoff. I find Oundjian especially comfortable with Russian repertoire, as some of my fondest memories of him with the TSO revolve around Russian composers, including Rimsky-Korsakov in Florida and on their CD, Tchaikovsky’s 6th for the Maestro’s birthday celebration last year, and now this spectacular kickoff to the new season.

I believe Rachmaninoff languishes under the weight of the same disrespect accorded to Puccini & Richard Strauss, to name two early 20th century composers known for their beautiful melodies and financial success. Can you say “popular”? It’s a troubling phenomenon, that music of great beauty is denigrated for the very thing many of us want most from music.  This piece should be better known, programmed more often. Starving artists are valorized even when their music is less attractive. But Rachmaninoff isn’t some conservative clinging to the past. His sonorities in this symphony anticipate what we’d hear from the film-scores of later decades, whether in their lush melodies or the swash-buckling energy of the brassy last movement. There are a ton of wonderful solos, including Jonathan Crow’s violin, Neil Deland’s horn, and stunning playing from the brass choir that offers up a motto in each movement. The brass in this symphony crushes you in the gut like guitars at a heavy metal concert, a visceral sensation bordering on the sexual, and in case you can’t tell, yes I liked it a lot. OMFG

They’re back with the same program Saturday night. Catch it if you can.

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