Tribute to Maureen Forrester

The Toronto Symphony presented the first of two concerts titled “A Tribute to Maureen Forrester” tonight, a celebration of a great Canadian artist, and two premieres.

It felt a bit like a radio program, given that

  • Ben Heppner was “host” for the evening
  • His comments as well as those from conductor Peter Oundjian went back and forth between our two official languages
  • We even had a little bit of an old CBC interview of Forrester played.

If tonight’s concert was being recorded for some sort of broadcast, I believe that the levels will work better in the re-produced version than they did in the hall, as I strained to understand Maureen, even if it was a wonderfully precious moment to hear that familiar voice speaking.

The program included the following:

  • John Abram’s Sesquie Start
  • Howard Shore’s song cycle L’Aube, for mezzo-soprano & orchestra , sung by Susan Platts
  • Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, sung by Platts and tenor Michael Schade

As a tribute to Forrester the occasion did push some buttons for me, in the performance of a Mahler work she had sung and with which she was associated.  In our opera class a couple of weeks ago, I played a performance of her singing “Von her Schönheit” both as a demonstration of her unique voice and to encourage the class to come to this concert.

There was a definite sense of occasion.

Abram’s Sesquie was two minutes of wacky sound, reminding me of the music one hears in cartoons, unpretentious & fun.  It made a great impression.

Next came Howard Shore’s new song cycle with texts by poet Elizabeth Cotnoir, an occasion for some lovely sounds, including a wonderful trumpet solo in the first song, a brass choir in the last, and of course the rich voice of Susan Platts.  I’m very fond of Shore’s work in films. He’s known for the Lord of the Rings films, but my favourites are his subtly psychological work with David Cronenberg such as Dead Ringers or Crash.  I wish I could say there was comparable profundity here. It’s my first listen to the cycle, and so perhaps I just don’t get it; but I felt that Shore was being very self-effacing and supportive in most of the songs, ambient and rarely very dramatic rather than taking the stage and showing us something distinctive.  But the music was beautiful, if rather undistinguished.  I couldn’t help contrasting Shore’s work to Abram’s, where one composer boldly sought our attention, where the other seemed very self-assured and relaxed.

But to be honest I was really there to hear the Mahler, to hear Platts, Schade, Oundjian and the TSO, and they did not disappoint.

resized_Susan Platts, Peter Oundjian Jag Gundu

Michael Schade waits his turn, while Susan Platts sings, with Peter Oundjian’s eloquent leadership of the TSO (photo: Jag Gundu)

Again, I’m mindful of  broadcast.  In the two loudest songs, namely the first (“Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde”) and fourth (“Von der Schönheit”), the big sound of the TSO covered the singers.  Perhaps you have to be a Vickers or a Forrester to avoid that fate? I’m not complaining. The flood of sound from the orchestra was very rewarding, whether in the flawlessly executed solos or in powerful tutti, with Oundjian favoring faster tempi. I’m conflicted because I prefer faster Mahler, just the way Oundjian did it, yet for this occasion and our reminiscence of Forrester, I suspect slower would be a more accurate evocation of her era and the conductors such as Bruno Walter with whom she worked.  But that’s splitting hairs.

Schade continues to be a revelation, with a voice that can make claims on repertoire bigger and heftier than what we used to expect. While he still sings a stylish Tamino there is a power suggesting he could undertake heavier roles if he wanted to.  While not quite a helden tenor, the sound was ample for this occasion.

Platts gave us a profound and thoughtful interpretation, particularly in “Der Abschied”, the massive song that closes the cycle.  She had quite a big sing tonight, with the Shore piece as well.

Oundjian continues to get better results from the TSO all the time.  It can’t simply be because he’s no longer dying his hair –since his 60th birthday—and as a result getting a different sort of respect from the orchestra.  Maybe it’s that with every new player, there’s a bit of a shift, and fewer players left from before his era began. That era is approaching its conclusion, and I find myself enjoying his presence, his kindness and warmth onstage.  He has nothing left to prove, and as a result might simply be enjoying his remaining time with the TSO.

Me too.

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