At the risk of saying something really obvious: there’s a great deal of music going on in Toronto, and all around the city too. I ventured just north of the city to one of several community venues, the charming 527 seat Flato Theatre in Markham to hear a concert by Kindred Spirits Orchestra. As I’ve observed previously on visits to Barrie & Richmond Hill, the epithet “if you build it they will come” was never truer than when applied to culture. I watched a concert of Wagner, Schumann & Shostakovich played to a packed audience, responding to the soloists as though they were rock-stars.
Okay nobody screamed or threw items of intimate apparel up onstage. But a smaller venue such as this one is a wonderful asset, creating a genuine buzz in the lobby –when the audience meets the artists—or in the enhanced acoustic potential of a smaller space to thrill the listener at the most basic visceral level. We’ve seen the same thing from the small new opera companies in Toronto over the past five years, who generate much more excitement packing a smaller space, less concerned with the number of actual tickets sold. In the end excitement and intimacy are difficult to generate in those larger spaces whose only advantage is the prospect of making money.
As a downtown denizen I have to admit, the physics actually flatters the hinterland and should raise some questions about what we’re getting in those bigger spaces. If you do the math (which is the key to physics after all):
- Roy Thomson Hall seats over 2600
- Massey Hall over 2700
- the COC’s home at the Four Seasons Centre seats around 2000
- Koerner Hall 1350
- Richmond Hill Centre seats 631
- Markham’s Flato Theatre seats 527.
The spaces are not shaped the same, but just as a concept, imagine that when you’re hearing a big loud Shostakovich Symphony played by the TSO at RTH, you’re sharing the loudest sound with another 2600+ patrons –or at least the space for those seats & possibly bodies too—whereas the same concert played in Koerner Hall will seem louder because you’re now sharing that sound with half the bodies / people, the same orchestral energy energizing a much smaller space, far fewer cubic yards of air being excited. No, I don’t think the TSO could actually fit the huge Shostakovich orchestra onto the Koerner stage and it might not sound enjoyable. And if you’ve heard them play Mozart @ Koerner and also @ RTH you had a chance to make the comparison more precisely.
But please follow along with me.
I listened to Rachel Mercer play the Schumann cello concerto with a chamber orchestra accompanying, in a 527 seat theatre. Mercer’s cello sounded almost as though it were amplified, its tone filling the space. I’ve never heard such exquisite sound, and almost wish there were some way that Mercer herself could hear what this is like in the space, although I suspect it sounds pretty amazing from the stage as well. Imagine that all the orchestral energy that is usually shared by 2600 people at RTH was instead there for a mere 527. No, the Kindred Spirits Orchestra is not the TSO. But I think this might explain one of the great recent mysteries in Toronto, that in some circles the Canadian Opera Company orchestra is perceived as better than the Toronto Symphony: because a great orchestra can’t sound as good in a big hall, as a good orchestra playing in a great hall with perfect acoustics. It’s been an eye-opener hearing the TSO in Koerner, where you discover oh my God they are amazing, but: can’t always discern that brilliance in the big hall.
I was attracted by one item on the program, the chance to hear my colleague Margarete von Vaight sing the liebestod with an orchestra. I’d heard her sing this already in a practice room at the RCM, where I played it, and by the way, now imagine how it sounds when a voice that can sail easily almost drowning out a full-size orchestra, sounds when you’re alone in the practice room. I am the O between two colossal Ws, if you catch my meaning, the jaw-dropping “o” you see when someone has their mouth open in shock. Even so, what one can do in practice isn’t necessarily what one gets in performance, when the adrenaline or Murphy’s Law conspires against you. That’s why live performance is so exciting, why i had to be there to hear it in person.
Kristian Alexander is the conductor of Kindred Spirits Orchestra, an ensemble I’d never heard before last night. They’re an interesting mix of professionals and perhaps 20 young players being mentored. Alexander has a sure hand, a very clear baton technique who cuts a charismatic figure reminding me of Thomas Haden Church (star of Sideways) in a tux. Aleander & KSO began with the Prelude, before seguing into the Liebestod, an expansive reading. While I don’t think this is a full-size Wagner orchestra (perhaps 75 players, not 100-120), the sound in this intimate space was quite powerful. It’s not just a matter of volume, but rather that you hear nuances to every instrument. The bite of the rosin into the strings, the crackling aspiration as notes begin on reeds or the momentary swell of the sound in the brass, become part of the blur in a big hall, lost the same way facial details are impossible to discern from afar. And the big voice doesn’t just sail over the big orchestral sound, but also has shading and delicacy in softer passages. Von Vaight gave us a strategic sing, singing much of the piece very softly (as it’s written) rather than just blasting her way through as some will do. Having heard her talk to me about how this is to be sung I knew that the entire piece was planned, to build throughout to a climax resembling physical release, entirely appropriate for an opera celebrating love. I was reminded of Sondra Radvanovky and Jon Vickers, two singers I’ve observed making clever use of soft notes that project, to catch a moment of rest in a difficult score before pouring everything into the climactic phrases.
Next came the Schumann Concerto. Playing from the front of that stage I swear I’ve never heard such a big cello sound as what we hear from Mercer, executed with great accuracy. When the concerto called for dialogue –a series of brief back and forth phrases between soloist and orchestra –the strings of the KSO were wonderfully precise, answering the luscious sounds of Mercer’s cello. While I don’t know if this was a typical concert the response was an extraordinary ovation, as we’d already seen for the Wagner. The fact that the worst seat in the house always has a kind of direct relationship with the players onstage might be the key. I could see them, they could see me. You don’t make such a direct connection in a big hall.
After an intermission including brief interviews of the soloists by associate conductor Michael Berec, we were on to the most ambitious item (both for the orchestra and as a challenge to this audience), Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony. Alexander turned them loose. Where the Wagner and Schumann had been exercises in careful control – respectfully controlling the volume of the orchestra and watching their tempi while seeking to follow soloists—the big romantic symphony was an entirely different animal. For the strings –who begin the work soulfully—it was mostly a matter of staying together, laying big swaths of sound into the little hall. The baton is passed gradually in the last three movements as almost all the winds take turns at being soloists or playing in groups, tasked with offering colour, both emotional and timbral, to an increasingly restless emotional landscape. Solo clarinet, flute, piccolo, bassoon, contra-bassoon, snare-drum, horns (Engliish & French)? You name it, they played it and wonderfully well I might add.
I have to close with two very different thoughts suggesting that our downtown chauvinism may be every bit as misplaced as the superiority I used to rail against from New Yorkers, recalling someone calling us and our talent “provincial” (happy to tell anyone details in private email).
First, this cute little theatre managed to project surtitles on the back wall during the Liebestod. Isn’t it time that Roy Thomson Hall offered the same courtesy? I just saw Tafelmusik orchestra & choir at Jeanne Lamon Hall, where I suppose we were being true to tradition (historically informed rustling of programs?) in the absence of text projected on the wall, although in their defense it might be hard to figure out where to project the titles. Perhaps a screen from the top of the organ pipes?
Second was the rhapsodic audience response. The soprano’s soft walk in, during the Tristan Prelude was described thusly: “You came on like a F***** ghost … You were SAVAGE” That’s from a conversation quoted to me afterwards, so sorry I didn’t hear it in person, although I fear I might have giggled, giving the wrong impression.
KSO’s next concert Aril 14th is titled “Death & Transfiguration”, including , Richard Strauss’s tone poem of the same name, Tchaikovsky’s overture “The Tempest”, and Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto #3 with Rudin Lengo as soloist.
KSO, with their intermission interviews, surtitles, their intimate venue and ambitious programming? I think they’re on to something.