Oundjian’s Carmina Burana with TSO

Tonight’s concert brings us to the end of the Toronto Symphony season, and of their Decades Project, an exploration of music & art led by Peter Oundjian.  There’s an additional poignancy when we notice that the TSO’s Oundjian decade and a bit is also coming to an end.  Oundjian’s tenure enters its twilight (his final season in 2017-18 still to come) with an unmistakable air of valedictory already in the air.

THISONE_RESIZED_Nicola Benedetti, Peter Oundjian @Jag Gundu

Violinist Nicola Benedetti with the TSO and conductor Peter Oundjian (photo: Jag Gundu)

One can’t help wanting to draw conclusions, especially after hearing two fitting pieces:

  • A violin concerto played by a young soloist seemed apt recalling that Oundjian is himself a violinist as well as a mentor
  • A big celebratory piece, namely Orff’s Carmina Burana was a natural outlet for the impulse to have a season-ending party

He told us upon his 60th birthday that he’d stop dying his hair.  Yes Oundjian is so much more relaxed up there, so at ease, particularly when he’s leading a big complex piece such as the Carmina Burana, holding the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, the Toronto Children’s Chorus, the TSO plus three soloists perfectly together.  Watching the rapturous reception for this work reminded me a bit of a rock concert, both because of the huge applause, and yes, because I had a sentimental flashback to undergraduate days listening to this piece high, a work as legitimate as stoner music as anything by Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd.

We watched three wonderful soloists.  I hope the TSO asks Phillip Addis back after such an  intelligently sung debut.  I watched him marshal his resources through the “Estuans interia”, a series of (I think) high Gs, and a final powerful A. He’s a theatrical singer who happens to possess a lovely sound and flawless intonation.  When Daniel Taylor stepped forward to give us his “Cignus ustus cantat”, a deadpan swan-song assisted by the chorus, the energy level went up another notch.  Soprano Aline Kutan whom I recall hearing with the COC a few years ago brought her beautiful colour to the unforgettable lines at the climax of the work.

Before intermission we had a very different sort of work. Nicola Benedetti was soloist in Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto #2.  Like the Orff work it’s another piece from the 1930s, and as Oundjian explained at the beginning of the concert, a work receiving its first Toronto performances this week.  I can’t help thinking about the objectives of the Decades Project, and the wish that this become a more or less permanent feature with the TSO.  Ideally we need to regularly hear new works –both the ones that haven’t been played here before and those commissioned by the TSO—in the years ahead.  Whatever we’re hearing, the process of educating the listeners and creating a vibrant community for music is an ongoing conversation that is spurred on by programming like this, where history of the music is front & centre.

Benedetti and Oundjian made a strong account of this work, one with a wonderful cadenza at the end of the first movement, and lots of stunning extended chords in the orchestra that wouldn’t be out of place in a Gershwin piece.  I’m not saying it’s jazzy but some of those sonorities were stunning, and Oundjian always kept the orchestra softly out of Benedetti’s way, allowing her to offer a sensitive exploration of the piece.

But the key thing is that the TSO follow up on this pattern, that Oundjian is a kind mentor, a generous leader who shares the spotlight.  His instincts are very good, a natural teacher who suggests the ideal template for his successor, huge shoes to fill even if he’s not such a big guy.  This kind of curatorial wisdom, leading us to explore the connections and resonances between different compositions must not end but go on in the decade to come.

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