TSO Eruption

The Toronto Symphony have taken to giving brief powerful titles to their concerts. Last night it was “Eruption”, taking the name from one of the works being presented.  But for all the primeval force implied by that word, we were dealing instead with something far more human, whether in the personnel before us or the pieces they played. Here’s the program:

  • Eruption by Edward Top, played by the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra plus key mentors in the TSO, a TSO Commission and World Premiere
  • Tchaikovky’s Piano Concerto #1, played by Stewart Goodyear and the TSO
  • United Anthems, (Sesquie for Canad’s 150th , a TSO co-commission and TSO premiere)
  • Dvorak’s Symphony #7

In the moments before the concert began there was a kind of frenetic energy in the hall, curiously apt if we were about to have an eruption. Normally before a concert you see some playing, a bit of conversation, while the players get ready. There was no mistaking the tumult of youth, about to give a world premiere. It was fun watching mentor talking to the corresponding principal player for their section, for instance the smiles and the occasional demonstrations one saw from Joseph Johnson –always easy to see because he’s front and centre—alongside the young principal cello of the TSYO.

I spotted Pat Krueger leaning over towards a fellow percussionist, clearly having a whale of a time in the moments before the concert.


Patricia Krueger, Principal Keyboard & Percussion for the TSO

Little did I realize that this was to be her final performance in a long career. And she clearly was enjoying every second.  When Peter Oundjian came out to make his pre-concert announcement he pointed out that we were about to hear Krueger’s final performance with the TSO. After the huge applause and a bouquet of flowers (which I thought would have made a really intriguing mallet for percussion, even if it might make a bit of a mess, let alone the imprecise impacts on the drums), they went to work in Top’s flamboyant composition.

Next on the program was another occasion to remark upon youth, namely Stewart Goodyear’s reading of the Tchaikovky piano concerto #1. I wonder if this is his first appearance since the cancellation last year, when we had hoped to hear Rachmaninoff.

As you may be aware, the TSO have just come home after a brief tour to Ottawa & Montreal with these same pieces, more or less offering Goodyear (and the remainder of this program) as their calling card.  Is there a better ambassador for Toronto than the sweet smile of Goodyear, who blew kisses to the adoring crowd last night? I have to think the orchestra is a loose and relaxed group after their little retreat, seemingly very tight and utterly responsive to Oundjian’s every tempo change.

Goodyear’s interpretation is remarkable in a few ways. He may have the largest dynamic range of any pianist I’ve ever heard. Yes he can play softly, but he gets sounds out of that Steinway that , well, make him a perfect spokesman for Steinway, which come to think of it is exactly what he is, as some of his recordings are for Steinway (who established a new recording label just a few years ago). If you want to know what a Steinway can do, pushed to the limit, you need to hear Stewart Goodyear. He plays the octave passages faster than usual, precisely articulated. In other words they sound big and loud but not blurred or unclear. When I think about what I used to take into a stereo shop to test record players, amplifiers, speakers, etc, the sounds coming out of Goodyear’s piano are like that: except they are more of a test of your perception, to hear details and clarity, nuances that you don’t hear from other piano players. I recall a professor years ago suggesting that when some of these 19th century pieces were written they expected a blur, expected a kind of messy chiaroscuro.  (he was thinking of Wagner, but the same applies here) Did Tchaikovsky ever hear all the notes articulated so clearly, with such nuance, I wonder? I doubt it.

After the intermission came a short but charming Sesqui, namely United Anthems. The Sesquis are two minutes works that are co-commissions with other Canadian orchestras to commemorate our sesquicentennial year. Maxime Goulet’s contribution is a celebration of our multi-culture that elicited a few giggles in my vicinity. In the course of a couple of minutes we heard a bit of Oh Canada, a bit of God Save the Queen and in due course, intimations and suggestions of national pride as heard in anthems and patriotic songs.

And then came the Dvorak. As we come to the twilight hours of Oundjian’s time with the TSO, I am noticing the magical moments. Oundjian seems especially happy with these passionate Eastern Europeans such as Tchaikovsky and Dvorak, opportunities for the players to wear their hearts on their sleeves. Yes it does sometimes sound more like Brahms than Dvorak, possibly because the Czech was still finding his way towards his own authentic voice; or maybe Brahms was always a closet Slav, what with his syncopations and Hungarian dances (yes yes I know we’re not actually Slavs… but you get the idea). For this work especially it felt as though the ensemble and their leader were in synch, that the trip had brought them all together into a kind of groove.


H Thomas Beck

A final thought concerns another nod of respect towards our elders, this time a nod from Oundjian in the direction of H. Thomas Beck, to whom the TSO dedicated the concert.  Oundjian gave a touching remembrance of him recalling his own early days with the TSO, so moving as I feel the gradual passing of torches within the ensemble, its organization and the community. Whatever else they ask of the Music Director –such as the ability to hold a baton and lead an ensemble—Oundjian’s heart and his loving mentorship are enormous factors for the TSO. I hope they’re thinking about this when they select a successor.

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