Tonight was the second of two consecutive concerts of the Toronto Symphony conducted by Danish maestro Thomas Søndergård, a spectacular program devoured by an eager audience showing off the strengths of the orchestra:
- Thomas Adès: Dances from Powder Her face
- Benjamin Britten Violin Concerto Op 15
- Francis Poulenc Les animaux modèles
- Claude Debussy: La mer
The oldest piece dates from 1903 (Debussy), with pieces from the 1930s (Britten), 1940s (Poulenc) and from a dozen years ago (Adès). As I looked around at a relatively young audience, eagerly attentive to a program that might have been considered challenging at one time, I couldn’t help thinking that the TSO and their audience have come a long way.
Violinist Baiba Skride exhibited her stunning lyrical tone in the Britten, a work that can be very unforgiving with its totally exposed high notes. Skride demonstrated flawless intonation, yet much more than mere technical prowess. In the last movement Passacaglia, as the fireworks subside she brought forth genuine soulfulness, reaching for profundity.
But every part of the concert presented opportunities for each section to shine, and they didn’t disappoint.
To open we heard Adès’s wonderful Dances from Powder Her Face. These pieces digest and respond to popular culture in a series of gestures verging on ejaculations, twisting recognizable tropes that we might call cliché into vivid contortions, parodic commentary. In places the colours are explosive. In the middle it subsides into a dizzy waltz that sounds a bit like drunken Mahler, and at the end things run out of steam, a tragic denouement.
After the interval we heard the Poulenc, a ballet of great wit that in some ways is a perfect accompaniment to the Adès. Again we were listening to music as commentary and gloss upon popular music, very self-aware & sophisticated, especially the way Søndergård treated the sections of the TSO. The Maestro had wonderful rapport with the players, injecting a kind of quiet seriousness to balance the quirkiness of this trifle, everything perfectly in control.
And then we come to the piece that likely drew most people to the concert, namely La mer. Every section gets their moment to shine. Søndergård resisted the urge some have to impose an interpretation, to bring out voices and make some sort of statement. Instead everything was there unhindered by the conductor, everyone there in the dense texture: the two harps, the virtuoso percussion playing, Jonathan Crow’s lovely solo work, the stunning section play from the cellos, and many spectacular solos from wind players.
The TSO sounds very good right now, playing fluff-free but with great commitment, their hearts on their sleeves. Next week it’s time for more romantic music with a concert featuring Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky.