Oundjian Ode to Joy

Tomorrow will be the last concert in this month-long celebration of Peter Oundjian’s tenure with the Toronto Symphony. I would have gone tomorrow but unfortunately I have to be somewhere else, and will miss that last encounter between orchestra & conductor, between Peter & his audience.

Oundjian-Beethoven 9 from back of hall (@Nick Wons)

Peter Oundjian leading the massed forces of Beethoven’s 9, seen from the back of Roy Thomson Hall (photo: Nick Wons). And doesn’t that look like the mother ship is about to land?

Tonight was pretty good though even if it’s but the penultimate.

We heard Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  The piece is ideal for this sort of occasion, an instant happening. For three movements the orchestra plays while a crowd of brooding faces watch and listen from the stage. It was almost like three different symphonies, totally unlike one another, each in the presence of the 150 formally attired singers of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, waiting their turn. The dissonance that opens the last movement might almost sum up the shock we feel when oh my they’re standing up, perfectly synchronized.

Something is going to happen!  Of course it won’t be a surprise when they also sing in perfect synchronization.

And –to quote Anna Russell—if Beethoven doesn’t tell the whole story, all over again (admittedly in miniature).

It’s quite a drama, with the conductor at the centre.

The first movement begins with a lot of nothing, as Harvey Olnick pronounced decades ago. Olnick was a music professor describing the opening of Die Walküre by Richard Wagner, pointing out the way Wagner’s opera begins with something reminiscent of Beethoven and the drama of pure ambiguity, “nothing” in the sense that Beethoven opened a discursive window, a space for us to listen and think, gradually filled in by the first big statement of the theme and lots more. Olnick felt that every composer wanted to do what Beethoven achieved, as so many others imitated this model, including Gustav Mahler with his own 9th symphony that Oundjian led just last week, also in D but much gentler to begin.

The second movement, a scherzo that could be titled “and now for something completely different” (like so many other scherzi come to think of it), gets them playing in a whole other way; and just when you think you know where Beethoven’s leading you (the timpani & that obsessive rhythm first in a string figure than enlarged to the whole orchestra), presto, he knocks you on your can for the trio, in an entirely different rhythm from a different part of the orchestra, and an entirely different flavour. Where the main section of the scherzo is powerfully rhythmic and even a bit scary, the trio is cute and nostalgic: as trios are wont to be.

Two movements down, and so far pretty close to perfect from the TSO & Oundjian, as far as I could tell.

We go off in another meditative direction for the third movement, lyrical & sublime, even at the quick tempo Oundjian takes: which as I must have said many times, is how I always prefer it. The orchestra are playing with great enthusiasm but entirely surrendering to the boss, following him to the ends of the earth or at least the end of the movement.

And then lordy by Jordy, we come to that cacophonous opening to the fourth movement when all heck seems to be breaking loose, and on top of everything else the choir is standing up.

And as I implied in invoking Madam Russell a moment ago, the opening reminds us of where we’ve been, the ups and down of emotion. Do we want to traverse such a path? shall we try a bit of movement #1? how about a sample of #2? or how about #3?


But we are going to be admonished: not these tones, but joy instead. First it’s just the strings playing that recitative, then it’s the baritone solo sung by Tyler Duncan, one of the most impressive versions of this I’ve ever heard. It’s quite a challenge when you think about it. On the one hand there’s this big orchestra, sounding like all heck is breaking loose. So you have to sing big and loud just to be heard. But hold on a second, you have to sing big and loud, while saying “oh friends, not these tones” (meaning: not this emotional stuff….).

He will tell us that instead, let’s be joyful.

So you got that? He has to sing loudly while telling us to be joyful, which (if you think of a poor struggling baritone bleating as loudly as he can) often comes off with all the kindness and joy of a U-boat commander ordering you to put your hands in the air. (if you don’t believe me go look on youtube, but don’t say I didn’t warn you).  Yet Duncan managed to smile, managed to look friendly, and yes, managed to sing this audibly without bellowing or shouting, beautiful tone, coherent, perfect.


And so we’re into the “Ode to Joy”, Duncan’s baritone echoed by the big chorus standing behind who are now not just bearing witness in their silent formal splendor but adding weight to whatever anyone sings, and genuinely sounding joyful.

MacKinnon, Segal, Haji, Duncan, Peter Oundjian (@Nick Wons)

Soloists MacKinnon, Segal, Haji, Duncan, led by Peter Oundjian (photo: Nick Wons)

We’ll get some other solo burblings, echoing Duncan’s exhortations, as Andrew Haji, Lauren Segal & Kirsten MacKinnon join in or sing their own lovely solo moments.

We build then soften, then build some more, Oundjian leading them all to a wild Dionysian conclusion.

I’m sure he’ll come back to visit from time to time, especially as he remembers the passionate ovation at the end.

Joy indeed!

Peter Oundjian thanks audience (@Nick Wons)

Peter Oundjian thanking the audience as they thank him (photo: Nick Wons)

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