TSO: Sir Andrew Davis Conducts Wagner

If you’re a fan of the music of Richard Wagner chances are you’re fully aware that the Toronto Symphony are showcasing some of his best known music this week, in a concert tonight that repeats Saturday Feb 2nd. After three consecutive years of Ring Cycle thrills 2015-16-17 from the Canadian Opera Company we hit a two year drought since Götterdämmerung.

So you must get a ticket to the Saturday concert for your fix of  big powerful voices, passionate tunes & hair-raising climaxes. You won’t hear better singing anytime soon (sorry COC). There are several reasons to go, as I shall elaborate.

Yes the three nights of the Ring operas are over four hours each plus the one-act prologue that’s two and a half hours. Our 90 minute concert tonight was a delicious hors d’oeuvre, an appetizer. But then again, considering how exhausting some of those operas can be, this felt complete:

  • a concert performance of the first act of Die Walküre perhaps Wagner’s most popular opera
  • his best known melody, that five minute bon bon from later in the same opera aka “The Ride of the Valkyries.”
  • In between the Wagner performances came Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra.

And yet there were lots of empty seats. Perhaps they didn’t know about the concert? I only spotted it a few days ago but of course I go to things compulsively and scour schedules to make sure I don’t miss things. When I saw this my heart skipped a beat.

In the spirit of Wagner, who denies you cadences and harmonic resolutions to keep you tied up in knots & hanging on, and all hot & bothered: let me first address the first half of the concert, and keep you waiting concerning the main event.

We began with the tune everyone knows. No this is not what we heard in Apocalypse Now. That sequence with the helicopters was the proper beginning to Act III with the soprano voices. In case you’ve ever wondered why Coppola put that music in the film, (preposterous and unlikely as it is), this is music that celebrates war. The first time I saw that film –as someone who grew up listening to Die Walküre –I felt like I was being ripped apart, torn in two by the contrary emotions of this orgiastic celebration of war (helicopters dropping napalm to those ecstatic soprano voices) while watching innocent villagers get shot and incinerated. Now if you take out the voices, you’re listening to a really cool melody in the trombones plus lots of swirling strings, all meant to accompany a vocal line: that’s missing. After about two minutes it gets very repetitive, but come to think of it, so are most of these orchestral gems (The Sabre Dance? Flight of the Bumblebee?), pieces of music for a different sort of audience.  Oh well, the audience ate it up.

This is not the same Andrew Davis I knew when he first led the Toronto Symphony decades ago. He’s gone away and matured. When he conducted Ariadne auf Naxos a few years ago with the COC we already saw a new larger than life persona, who’s been back for such adventures as his brassy Messiah that the TSO recorded. He is a magisterial presence, a steady hand on the tiller with a mischievous smile.


Sir Andrew Davis (Photo: Jaime Hogge)

Davis seemed very comfortable with Wagner & the riderless horses that this piece implies (given that the sopranos / Valkyries riding the horses are missing from this version). And then he came out to do the Peter Oundjian thing at the microphone, introducing the second item on the program. After a pregnant pause he took the stage, going much deeper than any talk I can recall from Peter, bless his heart. I’m guessing that Peter was mindful of his audience & his mission, aimed to educate and to be inclusive, and so was studious in the KISS principle: keep it simple, Scarberian, (or whatever else S might stand for). Berg is like the bastard child of the Ring; no I don’t mean in the way Siegfried is the outcome of a wild night on the forest floor for the fleeing Wälsung twins, so much as the musical outcome of what Wagner started, namely modernism. I loved Davis’s off the cuff style, explaining how we got to Berg and in the process making sense out of this curious program. While it was a wild & woolly Ride, complete with a trombone coming in a whole bar early (well the piece does seem to vamp until ready… except trombones are supposed to count, not make the whole orchestra adjust & make the conductor blush): all was forgiven. The Berg was a remarkably delicate affair for the first part, gradually building to big climaxes. The great thing about this piece is that I wouldn’t have a clue if someone played a wrong note or an entire wrong page. It sounded great.

And then after intermission we came to the reason most of us were there.

Let me begin by saying a heart-felt “it’s about time”. Every rinky dink opera outfit in the GTA gives us projected titles with a translation. Thank you Roy Thomson Hall for catching up to something the COC first did in 1983. So that was a mighty step forward. We shouldn’t have to juggle programs when something is being sung in a foreign language, opera or oratorio or whatever else it might be.  Hopefully this will be the new normal.

This concert performance of the Act I showcased many talents:

  • Soprano Lise Davidsen as Sieglinde
  • Tenor Simon O’Neill as Siegmund
  • Bass Brindley Sherratt as Hunding
  • The conducting of Davis: not at all who he used to be
  • And assorted solos in the TSO…. Joseph Johnson was particularly affecting in two brilliant solos, especially the first one, as Siegmund begins to fall for Sieglinde. O’Neill stared at JJ as though dumbstruck by the beauty coming out of that cello. No wonder he falls in love.

It’s not fair to compare this to a fully staged performance. O’Neill doesn’t have to struggle with a real sword, Davidsen doesn’t have to actually get a drink for Siegmund or drug her hubby. No costumes or sets might be an advantage, though, in the era of Regietheater, productions that sometimes overwrite the opera with new meanings. And it’s a whole different animal to sing Sieglinde for three acts, or Siegmund for two (he doesn’t live to see Act III), as opposed to what we got tonight: which is still lots to sing.

While I won’t deny that I’ve got some Dalwhinnie in a glass as I gather my thoughts before sleeping, I’m sober in my assessments. I’ve heard a great many Sieglindes in my time, both on record and some live. This performance from Davidsen is the most accurately sung sensuous singing I’ve yet heard in the role. The lower part of the range is like butterscotch ice cream, so rich as to seem decadent and so good I kept wanting more (and she will be the reason I come back Saturday if I can manage it: as should you). It might be the most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard. I want to say it can’t last, because she’s young and singing rep that 30 year olds don’t normally undertake (and btw I don’t know her age, but she looks even younger). The approach seems natural, unaffected.  The sound emerges without struggle possibly because of her size, as she stands 1.88 meters tall, towering over the others onstage with her. With each successively higher note (it’s written so that she hits a G, then a G-sharp and finally an A) she showed more power, perhaps a tiny bit sharp on the A, which was preferable to flat. I mention that only because except for that she was perfect, the voice powerful, emerging without apparent  effort.  I think it’s fair to say that she has a brilliant future ahead of her.

O’Neill is in some respects the exact opposite even as he portrays her twin. You can hear recordings of his intelligent singing from years ago, and that’s basically what we got tonight. He has excellent technique, a committed portrayal dramatically with crystal clear diction & impeccable pitch on every single note. Maybe that’s what people expect in a concert performance: but Siegmund is challenging. The colour is lighter than what some singers give us, more of a McCracken than a Vickers or a Kaufmann, which is another way of saying that he is a tenor without darkening into a baritonal sound. This man is reliable, and will give you the high notes that make the climactic moments work so well.

Here’s an example of him singing part of what we heard tonight. Notice the commitment, the perfect technique & accurate pitch

I don’t know Brindley Sherratt, but maybe I should..? He reminded me instantly of Gottlob Frick, a bass with a wonderfully dark direct delivery. Again, he was note-perfect. This was a classic reading without anything quirky or unexpected, very musical.

Davis gave us some magic. In the earlier part of Hunding’s role, when so many orchestras think their job is to make the brass loud as if they were all MAGA hat wearers playing their music ALL IN UPPER CASE (in other words, without subtlety or guile), this was a revelation. Aha, what if Hunding is observing Wehwalt (as they initially call Siegmund), seeing the resemblance between his wife & the newcomer, singing sotto voce while the brass were crisp but shooting brief little bursts..?  As a result we could hear everything perfectly, without necessitating exhaustion for Sherratt: or any other singer come to think of it. Davis let it all build gradually. The big climaxes were never overly loud, under control, and musical. The emphasis on beauty rather than pure volume was noticeable.

And I need to mention something from today on Facebook. As I walked to visit a customer today in the extreme cold of Toronto’s morning, and I recalled a piece of music that makes me shiver, I asked friends what music makes them shiver: given that we’re already shivering, right? The culmination of that thought was in the moment during the concert when the (virtual) sword comes out of the (virtual) tree, a sound very much like an orchestral orgasm: and no Wagner was not blind to the implications of all this talk about a sword. The moment in question Davis and the TSO gave me colossal shivers as the whole orchestra simulated the convulsions in the viscera of the twins, glimpsing the sword pulled out of its sheath.

The three singers were entirely believable in their portrayals, delightful to hear. You won’t hear Wagner again in Toronto for a long time, and certainly won’t hear singing like this, perhaps ever. This is what Roy Thomson Hall is really good for, namely big loud performances from a big large orchestra.  The program repeats Saturday Feb 2nd at 8:00 pm.

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16 Responses to TSO: Sir Andrew Davis Conducts Wagner

  1. A powerful voice, Thank you for sharing the many hidden talents which go into making a concert possible
    Sending well wishes.. 🙂

  2. Les, as always, you articulate what we experienced so well. As you know, I’m a sucker for this music, and I’d probably have enjoyed it even if it had been the Three Stooges as soloists, accompanied by an accordion…

    I have nothing profound to add, but will say that one aspect of the performance I particularly enjoyed was Sir Andrew and the orchestra’s success in bringing out the wonderful inner voices that permeate this score. When I hear good live performances of Wagner, I rediscover how much is going on in his music. As Wagner intended, it’s seductive and even a bit exhausting.

    • barczablog says:

      No kidding! i think I feel the same way. Just call me Curly (oh wait I got a haircut) or Moe, it’s fun to sing this stuff (at home). No accordion though.

      Yes I agree about the inner voices. Isn’t it helpful to be able to see an orchestra this way? when they’re in the pit (as Wagner intended) we stare at the set & the singers in costume ideally to be immersed in the story. This shifts the drama. I was so impressed with Joseph Johnson last night, stunning cello.

  3. Gordon says:

    Sorry, but the instrument that came in a bar early wasn’t a trombone…

    • barczablog says:

      Good to know! I mustn’t malign or bear false witness, duly noted and please convey my apologies if that’s in any way possible. In the end it was okay but then again as you can probably tell, I put the piece in the same category with the Sabre Dance.. More fun than art but still impressive and enjoyable.

      • Gordon says:

        No worries. The trombones do tend to take the blame for a lot of things. I’m guessing there are more than a few reasons for that…

      • barczablog says:

        That sounds so profound (“The trombones do tend to take the blame for a lot of things.”)

        Systemic? (because they sit at the back)
        Envy? (because they’re so powerful and noticeable when they start playing)
        Political? (because -speaking as a former denizen of that back row of a band–we’re often counting bars and bars of rests, wise-cracking softly from afar,,,, suspicious and subversive)

        No wonder I’m thinking “you always hurt the one you love.”

      • Gordon says:

        Trombone players like to play on the louder side. When a conductor hears something that is loud and can’t tell where it’s coming from, they will usually look our way first. They’re not always wrong. Also, the wise-cracking thing.

      • barczablog says:

        Tom Allen (a very amusing witty fellow): trombone player. QED

  4. “You won’t hear Wagner again in Toronto for a long time”

    Not so sure. Unless you know something I don’t there’s that Parsifal due in 2020 and the moles report much dusting off of Flying Dutchman sets.

    • barczablog says:

      Yes true enough. I don’t want to wait that long even, speaking petulantly and not altogether reasonably. Wagner brings out the child in me. Yes I’ve heard the Hollander rumours too (not terribly excited by that). whereas Parsifal would be cause for celebration. Many questions will be answered Monday.

  5. Vanessa Fralick says:

    I must say, it really undermines your credibility as an orchestral music critic if you can’t correctly indentify the sound of a trombone from that of other brass instruments. Perhaps you shouldn’t spend a whole paragraph disparaging someone (or a whole section!) for a simple error when you are the one who has made a mistake. Elevate yourself to a higher level of listening and criticism.

    • barczablog says:

      *Blushing* point taken. It’s hard to know how one will be read /understood, as I aimed for something funny and comical, clearly missing the mark especially for you & your colleagues. While it was hardly a whole paragraph of disparagement (more like half of a sentence)… that doesnt’ matter really. I offer my sincerest apologies. I was staring at the conductor as he bravely soldiered on.

      And (awkwardly changing the subject) was that a relative / family member singing yesterday (in the Schubert opera)? Quite the talented family!

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