Planets via Storgårds and TSO

There are many possible ways to interpret great pieces of music.  I was struck tonight, listening to the Toronto Symphony led by John Storgårds at Roy Thomson Hall, that sometimes there are more important considerations than the interpretation. I say that because, while I didn’t always agree with Storgårds’ choices, there was no mistaking the rapport between the conductor & the ensemble.

They follow him. They play for him with great passion & commitment.  They seem to like him.  And as we observe the orchestra in the twilight hours of Peter Oundjian’s tenure as music director, every new wielder of a baton becomes a possible suitor wooing the orchestra and the audience, someone who might be a candidate to take Oundjian’s place.

There were three items on the program tonight:

  • Igor Stravinsky’s Funeral Song for Orchestra, a youthful work having received its Canadian premiere performance in yesterday’s concert
  • John Estacio’s Trumpet Concerto, having received its Toronto premiere in yesterday’s concert, co-commissioned with several other Canadian orchestras
  • Gustav Holst’s familiar suite The Planets 
Andrew McCandless, John Storgårds (@Jag Gundu)

Conductor John Storgårds leads the TSO, including trumpet soloist Andrew McCandless (photo: Jag Gundu)

The Stravinsky piece that began the program is quite a story in and of itself.  In 1908 the work received its single performance before being lost.  Stravinsky composed it to honour his teacher Rimsky—Korsakov.  And it was assumed to have been lost.  In wikipedia the composer –speaking decades later of the lost piece he recalled from his youth—is quoted describing it as follows:

all the solo instruments of the orchestra filed past the tomb of the master [one of the great authorities & teachers of orchestration] in succession, each laying down its own melody as its wreath

But of course it has only just been re-assembled from parts that were found in 2015, which is why it received its Canadian premiere this week.  I heard it for the first time just yesterday, and confess that this new piece that I had been looking forward to tonight didn’t impress me as expected, a more restrained and polite reading than the one I heard online. I’m inclined to cut Storgårds some slack, as this highly chromatic piece is full of subtleties. Perhaps it will sound better in time, as its nuances are better understood? Or maybe my expectations are unreasonable, and the issue is mine alone.

In contrast, the flamboyant Trumpet Concerto by Jon Estacio was a huge success with the audience (although NB they loved the more sombre Stravinsky piece too). It’s a  work of lovely sonorities.  Everything I’ve heard by Estacio is beautiful, a composer with a very direct sensuous appeal to the ear.  The ease with which soloist Andrew McCandless negotiated the work makes it tricky to determine whether we were experiencing phenomenal virtuosity, or simply a piece making relatively modest demands on the soloist. All I know is that the instrument stayed within its normal range without straining the player with extreme high notes or challenging passages with lots of sweet cantabile passages.  I suspect that Estacio made smart & judicious choices, avoiding making his concerto overly difficult, but did make it a stunninglyy attractive piece of music to listen to, which is perhaps the most important consideration.

After the two premieres and the interval we came to the well-known piece on the program, namely Holst’s monumental seven-movement suite The Planets, that’s less about astronomy than astrology, concerning the seven planets nearest to us in the solar system:

  • Mars The Bringer of War
  • Venus, The Bringer of Peace
  • Mercury, The Winged Messenger
  • Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity
  • Saturn, The Bring of Old Age
  • Uranus, The Magician
  • Nepture, The Mystic

While my comments about the orchestra’s rapport with their leader apply to the entire concert it especially mattered to me in a work that I know well, and where I have opinions about how I like it to be performed. But no matter, the key –as I said at the outset—is how the orchestra responds to Storgårds’ leadership.  Nevermind my preferences.  The readings were all very confidently executed, in the sense that Storgårds seemed to know what he wanted, and the orchestra followed faithfully.  This was a tight ensemble, especially in the most challenging sections, a parade of beautiful solos from Jonathan Crow, Joseph Johnson, the winds & brass, and the percussion, and many accurate entries when everyone was playing.  By the time the women of the Elmer Iseler Singers offered their wordless epilogue to Neptune, I was thoroughly hooked, the audience joining me in a long respectful silence at the end: always a good sign.

The concert repeats Saturday night at 7:30 pm.

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