I don’t know if Hannu Lintu is a candidate to succeed Peter Oundjian or not, but I wish he were. The Finnish conductor enticed some of the finest playing I’ve heard all season out of the Toronto Symphony in a program from three different centuries. We heard a modern oxymoron sandwiched between two antiques, and all three were fabulous examples of committed playing by the TSO.
We’re accustomed to a degree of ostentation in singing, an approach that may offer a display of both the sound of the voice and the person of the vocalist. And yet that’s not the only option. I’m thinking of Pellèas et Mèlisande, an opera that is other-worldly in its subject and almost devoid of the usual material that we expect in opera. No arias. No displays of virtuosity. As an opera it’s an oxymoron, a contradiction between the expectations of the form and the actual work. There are other such works I could point to, for instance, Melati Suryodarmo who danced on butter—or should I say slipped around on top of butter, deconstructing the whole idea of virtuosity and perfection.
Did composer Magnus Lindberg actually want us to hear every note and nuance of soprano Anu Komsi’s performance in his Accused: Three Interrogations for Soprano and Orchestra? If this work were Harold in Italy or perhaps one of Beethoven’s concerti, no matter how epic the struggle between soloist and orchestra, we’d expect to be able to hear the soloist and clearly discern their performance, in keeping with the ideas of heroism in the music of the romantic period.
But not this time, and I have to think that was intentional.
And so maybe you can tell that I am conflicted. This work is as contemporary as the blur surrounding the question of fake news. Three different scenarios are presented, one French (from their revolution), one German (from the 1970s) and one in English (from this century). That the answers to the interrogation were often inaudible probably shouldn’t be blamed on the acoustics in Roy Thomson Hall, as it appeared to be a deliberate choice of composer + interpreters as this work received its Canadian premiere in this week’s concerts. Part of me wishes I could have heard some of those ultra-soft replies from Komsi (download the text as part of the concert’s program here), yet they are singularly apt, like the dance in butter or the absence of virtuosic display in Pelléas. In a work that seems to flout its own divergence from the norm, that makes new rules, I’m inclined to applaud, intrigued by this daring and original approach. We need to hear this with 21st century ears, attuned to the buzz of fake news and bogus media.
Komsi was precise, accurate as a coloratura at times, yet delicate and dignified even when overwhelmed by the huge orchestral forces Lintu whipped up around her and –it might seem – against her. In some ways Lindberg’s score answers a question I posed a few days ago, concerning the next generation of 12-tone, as we heard music with none of the nasty dissonances you find in Schönberg, a wonderfully tuneful and assonant sound even as it offers a great deal of ambiguity. I think the orchestra had a great time with this piece, as they responded with some lovely delicate sounds, as well as some wonderfully boisterous playing.
After the interval we went in a different direction, in a stunning reading of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. The level of commitment I thought I saw and heard from the players tonight led to a memorable performance. The first and third movements were on the brisk side, while the other three were conventional, or even slower than what’s written.
Lintu has a very clear baton technique, opting sometimes to move once per bar or even (rarely) standing and watching the orchestra play rather than religiously beating every note. When he wanted something extra his gestures were frenetic, including one lovely moment reminding me of a batter losing his bat, when the baton went flying: suggesting a wonderfully loose technique. The music is the real test, and it sounded glorious. At times I was reminded of the Cleveland Orchestra and their colourful brass and winds, both in the first movement (where the horn part was highlighted more than any time I’ve ever heard), and the last. Phrases in the finale were particularly elegant, allowed to make their full eloquent statement, hymn-like, solemn, glorious.
I was totally a mess at the end of a concert that had already taken us into the hellish criminality of regimes tormenting whistle-blowers in Lindberg’s score, to a glowing re-affirmation of the natural world in the hymn that closes the Beethoven. I’ve never heard those final coda passages played so firmly, so clearly.
Yes the world will still be here in spite of our current craziness.
We opened with Sibelius’ suite of incidental music from The Tempest, (perhaps to match the storm in the penultimate movement of the Beethoven?). This was a more restrained sort of music-making, but a wonderful way to start the evening.