How could it be otherwise? Peter Oundjian, the Toronto Symphony’s Conductor Emeritus, was greeted with a huge ovation when he came out at Roy Thomson Hall to begin tonight’s concert. We brought his wit to the microphone, cleverly mangling Shakespeare to say “if music be the love of food”, in reference to a bargain struck by Felix Mendelssohn that exchanged a composition for something delicious.
We were well fed, tonight, in a tastefully varied program:
Rossini: overture to La gazza ladra
Coleridge-Taylor: Ballade in A Minor
Mendelssohn: Concert piece No 2
Given that the title of the concert, to be repeated November 10 and 12, is “Oundjian Conducts The Planets”, the other three pieces are a bonus.
Oundjian walked to the podium, and then to begin the Rossini did something I’ve seen him do before, that reminds me of a talk-show host (he seemed perplexed when I made the comparison a few years ago). He’s not a power-mad maestro, but rather an affable presence who happily lets a performer take charge when it’s suitable. And so the opening drum-roll was handled almost as a free-form cadenza rather than as a tightly scripted event.
While it’s not the same orchestra anymore, the relationships between the former music director and his players are still solid, a joy to behold. In the Rossini as in the Coleridge-Taylor, they responded eagerly. The flamboyant theatricality of the overture was followed by something much more emotional overflowing with an agitated passion.
And then came the unexpected fun of the Mendelssohn, a three movement duet for basset horn and clarinet accompanied by a small orchestra that overflows with humour and witty touches. Eric Abramovitz (clarinet) and Miles Jaques (basset horn) surpassed themselves in an unforgettable encore. I have no idea who wrote the piece, but promise you that if your applause is sufficient you’ll probably hear this amazing piece, whose punchline (when Jaques and Abramovitz play it) is a pregnant pause, then an actual exchange of instruments for the final bars of the piece. Brilliant and yes, very funny.
As I said, those were the bonus before the main event.
This past week I’ve heard parts of Oundjian’s TSO recording of The Planets three times on the radio, including Jupiter on Classical 96.3 as I drove to the concert. Mark Wigmore said “you’ll be hearing that tonight.” It’s familiar turf, arguably another signature piece for the TSO, and they played it with that kind of bold confidence. Mars went from softly brooding to big and brassy. Venus was gently murmuring, then Mercury couldn’t stop running past us. Jupiter was like a replay of what I heard earlier on the radio, although it’s so much more vivid live, watching all those players working in the panorama before us.
I was sad, noticing that in spite of the nice haircut, notwithstanding the energy of his conducting, the bringer of Old Age Saturn was conducted by someone whose hair is completely white.
Uranus continues to be an amusing mix of rhythms and jagged phrases. And then we came to mysterious Neptune, complete with the team of Toronto Children’s Chorus and Toronto Youth Choir singing from offstage.
One of the great pleasures was watching the methodical acknowledgement Oundjian made of every contributor, generous as usual. It was a celebratory finish to a beautiful evening. And it’s great to have our Peter back.
The TSO repeat the program Thursday and Saturday. On Sunday afternoon at George Weston Recital Hall, in a program titled “Oundjian Conducts Mozart’s Jupiter”, the TSO substitute Mozart’s symphony for the Planets suite.
I am glad he had a warm welcome in his return.
However, I dislike when the TSO pulls these antics with how they advertised the concert. I know a few people who were subscribers and then stopped subscribing to the TSO because they would advise a “Beethoven Concert”, a “Mozart Concert”, etc. and then put in modern works (which fortunately they didn’t do this time) at the start of the performance. One person I know, when the TSO phoned them about not renewing, was told that the TSO was trying to ‘educate their audience’ by doing this.