Oundjian and TSO: the long goodbye

It was the first in a series of concerts for the month-long celebration of Peter Oundjian’s achievement with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, as he finishes his fourteen year tenure as music director.  In his introduction Oundjian explained some of the rationale for the program, as though in some respect these concerts tell a story.

“Peter Oundjian: this is your life.”

Or so it seemed as he told us some of his connections to the Bernstein, the Gershwin and the Brahms on the program.  We heard a charmingly funny horror story about Herbert von Karajan from his student days at Juilliard, pushed into a conductor’s role for a movement of the symphony we heard tonight, complete with the obligatory imitation of the great man.

It was the perfect preamble, something I will miss when he’s gone. Oundjian has a wonderfully collegial manner at the microphone, a generous teacher & mentor without much evident ego getting in the way.

We heard the TSO in three works:

  • Three Dance Variations from Fancy Free by Leonard Bernstein
  • The piano concerto in F by George Gershwin
  • Johannes Brahms’ 1st Symphony in C Minor

It’s an odd sort of thing, this business of celebration.  Everyone was so pumped up that we were not watching an orchestra drilled by their master so much as an ensemble reminding me of  eager children performing their Christmas Pageant, complete with the adoring audience eating it all up.

The month to come won’t necessarily be the same as tonight, but for this occasion, the adrenaline was high.  Everything felt a bit louder than usual, as though the acoustics of Roy Thomson Hall had improved. But I think it was simply that everyone played with great commitment.

This was especially true of Jon Kimura Parker, substituting on short notice for an indisposed Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who was to have been the soloist in the Gershwin.  Parker practically ran onstage, bouncing in his seat a couple of times while playing.  This concerto is a favourite of mine, but I have to say this was a reading unlike any I’ve ever heard.  Oundjian played up the jazzy element from the orchestra, giving us big dynamic range.  And Oundjian gave Parker lots of room for his occasionally idiosyncratic rubati, an interpretation with genuine soul.  I’ve always found Oundjian especially generous in concerti, very thoughtful around his soloists with a wonderfully supportive approach: and that was again true tonight.

Peter Oundjian, Jon Kimura Parker_2 (@Jag Gundu)

Oundjian shapes the orchestra in support of soloist Parker (photo: Jag Gundu).

Parker’s encore that he introduced as a tribute to Oundjian was a blistering reading of Oscar Peterson’s Blues Etude, red hot playing in one of the most impressive displays of pianism I’ve seen in a long time.  Wow.

The three brief Bernstein dance movements were little jewels, exploding with energy & verve.

Then came the Brahms, where the orchestra celebrating Oundjian seemed at odds with the need for balance in a large scale work, colliding with the subtleties of this symphony.  It’s weird, that the piece at times was subverted by energy, when I think I would have preferred something less intense, less edgy, more magisterial, unified and self-assured.  We heard solo after solo played beautifully, stunning playing from the string section (for instance in the main theme of the last movement) or the trombones (the choir near the end of the symphony).  I think tomorrow’s concert will be better when they settle down and simply play.

In the days ahead we’ll be hearing the TSO and Oundjian in Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, a concert featuring Christopher Plummer & music inspired by William Shakespeare, Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and for the final weekend, Beethoven’s joyful Ninth Symphony.

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