TSO and the joys of youth

At its height one isn’t aware of it at all, but only when it’s fading or gone. The word gets thrown about mostly by those who don’t have it anymore, enviously looking back.


But the weekend’s Toronto Symphony concert at Roy Thomson Hall gave me two reasons to ponder questions of youth and the pleasures thereof.

First, there was the program featuring the following three works:

  • Smetana’s “The Moldau”, the most popular of the tone-poems of the six in Má Vlast
  • Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, in B minor
  • Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony

And second, the subject was inspired looking upon our conductor, the fearless 31 year old Aziz Shokhakimov. And while TSO principal cellist & the concerto soloist Joseph Johnson may be quite a bit older, he too looks very young.


Joseph Johnson, cello, the Toronto Symphony and conductor Aziz Shokhakimov (photo: Jag Gundu)

I love the pieces on the programme and we came especially to hear Joseph Johnson play the concerto.

I’ve been listening to “The Moldau” since childhood. My mom used to sing it after a fashion, picking up on the main theme based on a Swedish folk song. To the child of a Hungarian family growing up in Canada it didn’t matter where the tune came from. Smetana’s sentimental tone-poem is perfect precisely as a vague reminder of some ancestral home back in Europe. In 2020, while Brexit may signify turning back the clock, the boundaries have mostly come down and so specificity is a curious relic from a time of fervent nationalism. And ditto hearing Dvořák’s invocations of folk music or Mendelssohn soaking up the local colour while touring Europe.

Shokhakimov was not at all what I expected, bringing a wonderfully distinctive vision to everything he touched, exuding a confidence belying his age.

I’ve never heard the opening to the Moldau played in such an original manner. If we’re seeking to visualize flowing waters as in a river, then Shokhakimov’s approach to the opening notes was the most natural I can imagine as the woodwinds did not enforce accents to telegraph where the bar-lines are, so indeed it was as disorienting as being immersed. I wonder if this is simply how it’s written? But the effect was delicate & felt brand new, illuminating as though from first principles a piece I’ve been listening to since I was a child myself.

Shokhakimov took me in an unexpected direction. Earlier this week I heard a performance that might be the fastest I’ve ever found, conducted by Ferenc Fricsay: quick & light and before you know it, it’s finished. Imagine my surprise that the young Shokhakimov should put me in mind of an old-school conductor such as Otto Klemperer in his deliberate tempo & respectful approach to the voices. When the main theme appeared it was one of the slowest I’ve heard, clear & very musical and with an unexpected gravitas. We were hearing the melody articulated with great patience, thoughtful as meditation.

Shokhakimov clearly knew what he was doing. The pace picked up, which was also a bit of a surprise. Old-school conductors more or less stick to the same tempo; whether they begin fast or slow, that’s usually how they finish. But no. Shokhakimov made something quite special out of each of the episodes in the tone poem. The Slavic dance music that we get was also on the slow side: and clearly articulated, down to every little grace note & drum beat, sounding so much more enjoyable at this speed than what I heard from Fricsay for example. As we came to the dreamy mermaid-music (a tune that reminds me of Lohengrin’s narrative; is that a coincidence?), the brass were brilliantly restrained, soft as the ramparts of castles seen in the distance at sunset, gradually emerging through the clouds. For whatever reason, the rapport was strong, the orchestra committed at every moment for Shokhakimov.

Or was it all meant for Joseph Johnson? It’s a special thing when a section leader plays a concerto. Everyone showed up eager & ready to play, as we would hear in the next piece, the Dvořák. The performance was a lovely reading of a majestic piece. Johnson’s tone sang out very directly, while Shokhakimov mostly kept the orchestra at bay so that we could always hear the cello clearly. It was remarkable as much for the pleasure of the music as the intense circle of community one sensed around the soloist, both in the orchestra & the audience, a circle of love.

Shokhakimov showed more of himself in the Mendelssohn that followed the intermission. We began the slow introduction to the first movement very slowly working without a baton, reminding me of the version I used to listen to when I was young, that super-slow Otto Klemperer (the old school conductor I spoke of previously). In this kind of reading we’re in the realm of introspection, as though the brooding piece has become a site for self-revelation. And yes, it makes the piece feel more profound, more philosophical.

And then he picked up the baton to use in subsequent movements, taking a much faster approach requiring precision. This isn’t how other conductors usually approach this movement, not when the brass bursts out overpowering everyone else: a macho & even phallic display of action if ever there was one. It was a bit hair-raising in its intensity. The reflective third movement adagio pulls back, again seeming to ponder rather than to act, inside the head rather than boldly venturing. Each inner voice came out clearly. And when it builds to its climax the brass were again over the top, as though a reminder of youthful vigor. The allegro vivacissimo was true to the name, lively, energetic, bravely played. And then the symphony pulls back for one last bit of reflection before the final allegro, bringing it home with heroic playing.

I wondered about the horn-players’ chops at the end, having been asked to play boldly all night. For the closing symphony Joseph Johnson was back leading the cellos in his usual place across from Jonathan Crow at the head of the 1st violins. I must credit Shokhakimov for his role as inspiring leader, bringing out the best in everyone, as each section had moments to shine.

It was such a wonderful concert I’m hoping the TSO will bring Shokhakimov again soon.

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