A very long time ago I was a Toronto Symphony subscriber watching Andrew Davis conduct the TSO. We’re both much older now. Tonight’s concert at Roy Thomson Hall was the launch of a new season with a new leader stepping back into his former role.
Here’s how his bio begins on the TSO website:
“Sir Andrew Davis is the Conductor Laureate of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra where he was previously the Orchestra’s Music Director from 1975 to 1988.”
The orchestra might be 100% different than it was back then. I’d have to check if anyone in the current ensemble was around at the time, but some of the players (such as concertmaster Jonathan Crow, associate principal trombone Vanessa Fralick or principal double bass Jeffrey Beecher) look so young that they probably weren’t even born yet, as of the mid-70s, 43 years ago.
In this the first week of the post-Peter Oundjian era, we will remember some of his achievements, whether it’s the gifted group that Oundjian assembled & mentored, or initiatives such as the New Creations Festival, that featured premieres such as Jacques Hétu’s Variations concertantes, commissioned a dozen years ago by the TSO and dedicated to Oundjian.
And yet they’ve moved on. There was no sadness but a tone of joyful celebration. This TSO already knows Davis and have even recorded Handel’s Messiah with their Conductor Laureate in his bold brassy edition . This week at least we heard much more of the same, between the Hétu & a pair of powerful works by Hector Berlioz, as the orchestra seemed to be having a great time.
We began with the Fantasy on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a part of Berlioz’s sequel to Symphonie Fantastique. The sequence tonight is perhaps a big clue as to why Lelio is rarely programmed, and certainly never done as Berlioz imagined, after Symphonie Fantastique. While the Fantasy features lovely inventive timbres, especially the delightful combination of chorus & four-handed piano to open the piece, it wouldn’t work: because nothing can really follow that magnificent work on the same evening without seeming to be an anti-climax. I think it’s a big deal to hear this music (meaning the Fantasy) at all: but of course it was programmed to begin the concert rather than to follow the Symphonie Fantastique. Yes the ‘return to life’ might be an interesting concept after the nightmarish final two movements, but it’s nowhere near as theatrical or exciting in comparison.
The Hétu Variations concertantes are not out of place in this program, alongside what might be the single most original piece of orchestration in history. Yet Hétu’s recent piece stands up very well in comparison, possibly because Davis boldly exploited the score’s contrasts for dramatic effect. The work features sections where much of the orchestra would be like a pianist, accompanying with big extended chords that are almost jazzy, while solo instruments such as flute or piccolo or bassoon veer in and out of harmony. I was mindful of so many prototypes, from Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra in the back and forth between big groups and small, but also Shostakovich or Mahler for the soulful melodies. This was much more than Canadian content, and served to honour both the composer & the dedicatee, namely Oundjian.
After the interval came the roller-coaster ride we’d been waiting for aka the piece I wrote about earlier this week. Davis brings a subtlety to the podium that is much needed. In any of the large build-ups that Berlioz wrote, where you see a minute or two of gradual crescendo & gradual acceleration—as we see a couple of times in the first and last movements—the experienced hand of Davis is vitally important. He began these passages with extreme softness & delicacy, a tantalizing resistance to the temptation to rush while gradually getting us where we needed to get to, by the time of the key climactic phrases. In other words the interpretation was quite wonderful and executed with conviction & evident joy by the ensemble.
The audience went wild of course, but that’s what one wants after a concert like this one. Davis and the TSO delivered.
If nothing else it’s going to be a fun couple of years.