The Toronto Summer Music Festival opened last night with a predominantly strings concert. The theme this year is “London Calling” so we got a programme of iconic 20th century English works. Things got off to a good start with the Festival Strings under conductor Joseph Swensen giving a lively and witty account of Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite with some excellent solo work by concert master Shane Kim.
The second work on the programme was the one I had really come to hear; Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. It’s a piece that would definitely feature in a Desert Island Discs selection for me, so my expectations were quite high. It started off well with an evocative account of the Epilogue from TSO principal horn Neil Deland. Indeed his navigation of this most tricky part was exemplary throughout. Unfortunately I could not warm to tenor Nicholas Phelan. I suspect the tessitura of the piece is just too high for him because in the quiet parts he produced a sort of underpowered falsetto and when he tried to project his timbre changed quite dramatically to produce a jarring change as the volume increased rather than a swelling volume of consistent tone. Diction and interpretation of the text weren’t too hot either with the necessary tension build in the Dirge, for example, notably lacking. Sad really. There are four or five young tenors in Toronto I’d back to do a far superior job. Excellent work again from the band though and I thought Swensen’s tempi well judged though a rather slow take of The Days Grow Old probably didn’t help his singer.
After the interval we got the Tippett Concerto for Double String Orchestra most competently rendered before the orchestra was joined by the Parker String Quartet for the Elgar Introduction and Allegro. This is Elgar at his most Edwardian rumbunctious with one really good big tune given a very energetic treatment back and forth between orchestra and quartet. It was actually as interesting to watch as to listen to. Normally one is used to seeing an orchestra cue off the conductor and a string quartet cue off each other. Here it was apparent that a bit of both going on so that there was just the hint of improvisation within the overall orchestral structure. I guess it’s like having the quartet as a kind of collective soloist in a concertante relationship with the orchestra. In any event, a good and energetic way to end a mostly satisfactory opening concert.