Judging by the way the Toronto Symphony are responding to their current series of guest conductors, I have to wonder. Are they better than we realize? Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect so much excitement from a resident music-director. Or then again, maybe this is a glimpse of what’s possible. Tonight I was again blown away, and I don’t know if it’s fair to credit the visitor or the people in this orchestra.
Thomas Dausgaard was the latest guest conductor to work magic on the podium of Roy Thomson Hall tonight in a program including Schumann’s cello concerto, Mahler’s 10th Symphony & another Sesqui (the two minute fanfares commissioned especially in celebration of Canada’s Sesquicentennial), this time by Christine Donkin.
We began with the most accessible Sesqui yet, at least among the ones I’ve heard. I was reminded of the Simpsons theme by Danny Elfman, an upbeat and vibrant two minutes of pattern music and broad melodies from the brass. Nevermind conservatories and academic approaches. And I wasn’t the only one blown away by Donkin’s direct and crowd-pleasing approach to music.
Joseph Johnson, the TSO’s principal cellist, then took the spotlight playing Schumann’s cello concerto.
It’s unfortunate that the comments in the program –calling the piece “enigmatic in its refusal to embrace virtuosity for the sake of virtuosity”—put such a negative spin on a piece of music that was and is decades ahead of its time. You may as well mock a person for not being a conformist, even though the originality of this piece is surely part of its charm. Johnson brought his gleaming honey sound to the lyrical moments, a performance that was unmistakably popular with his peers in the orchestra. Aside from the joy he brought to the performance, I believe these concerts employing the TSO soloists –for example when principal horn Neil Deland plays a horn concerto or concertmaster Jonathan Crow plays Scheherazade—are wonderful opportunities to build the chemistry of an ensemble, with benefits far beyond what we hear on that occasion.
After intermission came Mahler’s 10th in Deryck Cooke’s realization, the major work of the evening if not of the year so far. This is the first time I’ve heard the piece played live, although I’ve heard a few recordings over the years.
I prefer Dausgaard’s approach, which is to say, fast rather than slow, transparent –with inner voices showcased—rather than opaque, and only moderately loud most of the way, making the climaxes much more dramatic. If you give us too much loudness too soon, you have nowhere to build. And so for example in the first movement, when we get that unforgettable loud chord, a passage roughly ¾ of the way through the first movement, one that’s imitated if not repeated in the last third of the last movement, Dausgaard gave it to us softer than I’ve ever heard it played. Oh I’m not saying it was pianissimo, it was still powerful and forte, but not the ear-splitting loudness we sometimes get. In fact, the sound built from there, to the most dissonant sounds in that movement that were genuinely ff or even fff. The dance-rhythms, though, were very light, very clearly accentuated, the pace quick and energetic. And so we dodged the lugubrious depressive effect some get with Mahler, even if their performances are also legitimate and fascinating to hear, thinking especially of Klemperer, who was my Mahler conductor of choice during my youth. I listened to a recording of the opening movement this morning conducted by Leonard Bernstein, who has been my favourite Mahler conductor; Dausgaard gave us a pace every bit as energetic and vibrant. For over an hour we were treated to bold confident attacks and precise playing with nary a fluff or mistake, wonderfully together and often at a breakneck pace. To repeat what i said already, this was among the most impressive playing I’ve heard all year from the TSO.
Wonderful as this reading was, there were times when I thought I detected places to quibble with Cooke, places where I thought Mahler must be cringing if he were listening. The middle movement is stunningly beautiful: but seems to end so abruptly I can’t help thinking that Mahler would have added something or repeated something. The simple tonalities we hear in places during the final ten minutes of the work seem to me to be sketches rather than Mahler’s last word, which is troubling when this movement IS supposed to be Mahler’s last word. Here perhaps the problem is that –for one little stretch—Daugaard gets the orchestra to play in a way that –for better or worse–calls attention to something that’s missing in the score. I believe it’s inevitable that we notice some shortcomings in this, which is in effect a kind of paraphrase, and only genuine Mahler in the first movement. After so much complexity, after an hour that kicks down the door to the 20th century and stomps all over conventional tonality, it seems so odd to suddenly step back from the brink, to be employing harmonies less adventurous than anything since perhaps his first symphony. I have to think that in these passages Cooke’s version shows us that Mahler had sketched but not really finished his thinking, that if he had heard it, he’d change it. But this symphony is at a disadvantage, because it hasn’t been programmed and played for a hundred years like the other symphonies, but only was completed by Cooke in the 1970s; orchestras likely will find other options, other ways to play through this score that seem more coherent. Or maybe the fault is mine and the way i am listening..? Yet I didn’t notice so much of a disconnect at the end of Nezet-Seguin’s recording, although now i need to re-listen to it. But I think the wonder of Mahler –any of this symphonies—is how many different good interpretations are possible in the same work.
I look forward to Dausgaard’s next visit.