Mozart & Mahler @ TSO

The final week of Peter Oundjian’s tenure leading the Toronto Symphony is here, so tantalizing because there’s a genuine rapport between the players & their leader. The future conductors who lead the ensemble, whether as guests or residents, may never get this close to the musicians, all of whom know Oundjian at least from years working together, if not also as the man who found & recruited them to their position. It’s his band to steer for the moment even if he will soon let go of the tiller.

Tonight was in some ways a classic TSO concert, reminding me of so many nights at Roy Thomson Hall, when we’d hear sporadic applause between movements, including the looks of irritation from some who don’t want applause in their silent mid-symphony reverie (like that pensive soul sitting in front of me fidgeting at every noise). There was an early courteous pause to allow patrons to find their seats, and a dramatic eruption near the end from a child whose sobs surprised a parent who must have mistaken Mahler for the Muppets (what was he thinking? At least the child wasn’t separated from his dad, even if I was immediately reminded by the audible cries of other tearful moments on the news this week).  But for me this is typical TSO –in stark contrast to the discipline one sees from the Tafelmusik audience—as we remember that Oundjian has been a teacher not just to the symphonic colleagues he’s mentored but to his audience as well, nursed along in the Decades Project and other efforts to raise the literacy of his listeners. I recall a concert a decade ago that infuriated me for the inability of the audience to be quiet: but at that time the orchestra hadn’t yet persuaded us (the listeners) to keep still.

We’ve come a long way.

The two works on the program couldn’t be more different, both for what they require of the orchestra & leader, as well as what they demand of the listener.

Emanuel Ax, Peter Oundjian, TSO_2 (@Nick Wons) (1)

Emanuel Ax at the piano with the TSO led by Peter Oundjian (photo: Nick Wons)

We began with Mozart in the guise of K 453, a piano concerto in G Major, employing veteran soloist Emanuel Ax. As with other concerts in this festival of Oundjiania, Ax has history with Oundjian, being his very first concerto soloist, and he’s now the last as well with this weekend’s concert. I’m sounding like a broken record in once more calling attention to the excellence with which Oundjian follows visiting virtuosi.  I am always impressed with how good he makes them sound, how masterfully the work comes off. Had it been Wolfgang Amadeus himself sitting at the keyboard I don’t think it would have been better (allowing that WA Mozart might have wanted to conduct his own ensemble from the piano, distracted by the big beautiful sounds coming out of his modern instrument, and dazzled to find himself alive in the 21st century surrounded by all the attractive patrons at Roy Thomson Hall). Ax? a humble servant of the music, even in its most challenging moments, never rocking the Mozartian boat.

The big work to conclude, Mahler’s 9th Symphony, was as much a treat for the conductor as for us, guaranteeing that a fun time was had by all: except perhaps the little child who was stunned by the intensity near the end, plus his embarrassed papa, carrying him to the safety of the lobby. For those of us who didn’t have to run away in terror it was quite an event. Oundjian had full commitment from his players this time out, everyone going all out. We got solos in every section, played flawlessly as far as I could tell. Teng Li was especially eloquent tonight in the last days of her tenure as principal violist, before she goes to Los Angeles as the Philharmonic’s new Principal. Oundjian’s interpretation opted for the faster tempi that I usually prefer in Mahler even if that can be fraught with risks, a greater challenge to hold it all together. The intensity never let up, particularly in a hair-raising third movement taken at a break-neck speed. With every year and new arrival, the virtuosity of this orchestra has risen ever higher, so it’s a treat to hear them tested in a showcase work such as this one.

The victory lap continues next week, with a Shakespeare program featuring Christopher Plummer and then Beethoven’s Ninth to finish next weekend.

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