I can’t be the only one who made the connection, watching the Toronto Symphony tonight at Roy Thomson Hall. It felt like a special concert.
Sir Andrew Davis was just announced this week as the TSO’s interim Artistic Director for the two seasons following the conclusion of Peter Oundjian’s tenure (while they search for his successor). Is it just a coincidence that tonight’s program included one of the works used to christen the new Roy Thomson Hall back in 1982, under a much younger Andrew Davis? Of course William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast is larger than life, so no matter what’s happening at the time, there will be a sense of celebration in the air. The programming was made weeks ago but I can’t help wondering, did they already have this planned? Davis once again –just like the concert last week—seems very much in command, the TSO seeming as responsive as a sports car with brand new tires on a dry road. And I am sure Davis had a much better time of it in 2017 than in the launch three and a half decades ago, after the renovations addressing the acoustical weaknesses of RTH. Even if it’s just a coincidence, there was a genuinely festive mood to the concert, and they didn’t disappoint us.
And speaking of decades, this was another of the concerts in the “Decades Project”, this one highlighting the decade of the 1930s. Had I encountered this program three or more decades ago, I would have had a very different response than I did tonight, hearing music by Paul Hindemith, Alban Berg and William Walton. At one time Hindemith & Berg seemed to be the future of music, while Walton would seem to be a stretch, as an exemplar of his decade. Yet from the perspective of 2017, Walton seems every bit as influential: when you factor in film music. Belshazzar’s Feast reminds me of a Bernstein, maybe a wee bit of Leonard but a whole lot of Elmer, thinking of film-scores such as The Ten Commandments or even The Magnificent Seven. No there’s no logical reason why this Biblical cantata should resemble a film about bandits and gun-fighters, but Walton’s syncopated brassy sound has me thinking of Marlborough country, a sound heard in cinemas worldwide, and likely by far more people than have ever heard either Hindemith or Berg.
The TSO were joined by two choirs, namely the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the Huddersfield Choral Society, as well as baritone soloist Alexander Dobson. Davis seemed to have a whale of a time leading the choirs and the TSO through this work with Biblical sources, that contains almost no spirituality that I could detect. In this respect Walton’s score is true to his time, seemingly more intent on effects than in making a genuine connection with the religious meaning of the text. I can’t help being reminded of the Pandemonium scene from Damnation de Faust, where Berlioz imitates what the minions of hell might sound like, when Walton gives us the rites of the Babylonians, plus a very lurid response from God, worthy of Cecil B Demille. But if we cut Walton some slack –and let the orchestra have some fun playing this score—it’s an amazing thrill ride, ear candy if ever there was such a thing. And thank you Andrew Davis for taking us along.
The first half of the concert was the more seriously musicological visit to the 1930s, a pair of contrasting works, Hindemith’s Concert Music for Brass and Strings and Berg’s Violin Concerto.
I never understood why Hindemith didn’t catch on, a composer who always excites me with his command of orchestral colour and intriguing way of making old ideas new. Concert Music for Brass and Strings is a playful exploration of sound that gave Davis reason to stretch a dozen brass players in an arc across the back third of the stage, sometimes barking sometimes snarling, always impressive, with roughly forty string players clustered at the front as if in refuge. Hindemith always sounds to me like the sort of composer you would use to show off a sound system or to test a new concert hall, not unlike Belshazzar’s Feast, and Davis seemed to hold nothing back in putting them through their paces.
In sharp contrast to the Dionysian impulses in the Hindemith, Jonathan Crow unpacked the sweetest subtleties as soloist in Berg’s violin concerto. Davis allowed details to be heard, restraining the orchestra for the most part while giving Crow space to play gently, in an interpretation sounding at times like chamber music for its delicacy.