Last night’s TSO program, conducted by Gustavo Gimeno, kicked off with three short pieces by Canadian composers. All were impressive. The first two; Adam Scime’s A Dream of Refuge and Bekah Simms’ Bite are reflections (to some at extent at least) on the pandemic. The Scime piece is lighter and brighter. There is uncertainty there but ultimately it seems to speak of hope. The Simms piece wis much darker with heavy percussion and blaring brass. A sense of uncertainty permeates the string writing. It’s quite disturbing. Roydon Tse’s Unrelenting Sorrow was written for those who have lost loved ones. It’s quite melodic and has strong contrasts between dramatic and more lyrical passages. Sorrowful perhaps but not unrelentingly so.
To Roy Thomson Hall last night for the first time in over two years to see Gustavo Gimeno conduct (my first time) with Barbara Hannigan featuring in a major premiere in the first half. The concert kicked off with a 3 minute piece by Julia Mermelstein; in moments, into bloom. It was over too quickly to register much of an impression with me. I certainly enjoyed the Stravinsky Scherzo fantastique that followed. This seems to be Gimeno’s type of music and he had excellent control of rhythm, dynamics and colour which augured well for The Firebird coming up after the interval.
Last night’s TSO concert was a collaboration with Barbara Hannigan’s Equilibrium Young Artists project with EQ providing the quartet of soloists for Mozart’s Requiem. But before we got to the Requiem there was a performance of Mozart’s Symphony no. 39 in E-flat Major. It was enjoyable. A somewhat reduced scale TSO played as well as they usually do when Sir Andrew Davis is on the podium and he took us through an irreproachable reading of the works essential tuneful and easy to listen to four movements. It made a pleasant “overture”.
A comparatively rare excursion into purely instrumental music for me last night but the prospect of Sir Andrew Davis conducting Beethoven’s seventh symphony was irresistible.
The “garage piece” was the overture to King Stephen. Probably the most notable thing about this is that it was composed for a play by von Kotzebue who had just turned down Beethoven’s idea of writing the libretto for an opera on the life of Attila the Hun. It’s not a fabulous piece but it was efficiently despatched.
This year the TSO used the Mozart arrangement for Handel’s Messiah (though, naturally enough, with the original English text). I have mixed feelings about it. It’s not hugely different in sound to whichever of Handel’s versions one is used to and it’s definitely not one of those 20th century versions for 100 piece orchestra and massed choirs but I’m hard pressed to see what the point is other than it’s Mozart.
The TSO’s opening concert of the season at Roy Thomson Hall was quite boldly conceived. Basically hand the evening over to the powerhouse duo of soprano/conductor Barbara Hannigan and violinist/conductor John Storgårds and see what they come up with. It was an excitingly eclectic programme which produced some great performances but a sadly disappointing turn out.
Last night the Music Director designate of the TSO, Gustavo Gimeno, conducted a concert of 20th century classics. It was the first chance to see him with the orchestra since his appointment. First up was the Sibelius Violin Concerto in D Minor. It’s a curious work with relatively little dialogue between soloist and orchestra. Rather there’s a very Sibelian orchestral piece kind of sandwiched with a highly virtuosic violin part but it works in an odd sort of way. It was also very well played with all the necessary virtuosity from soloist Jonathan Crow and an orchestral sound which while often dark and brooding was also quite transparent.
At Roy Thomson Hall last night for the TSO playing Carl Orff’s extravaganza Carmina Burana. It was fun. I don’t think it’s a piece to over-intellectualize. Big orchestra, enormous choir (Toronto Mendelssohn Choir augmented by the Toronto Youth Choir plus the Toronto Children’s Chorus), bawdy Latin lyrics and so on. It’s big, brash and mostly quite loud though I think Donald Runnicles did a fine job of balancing orchestra and voices, especially when the soloists or the children were singing.
The main event in last night’s programme at the TSO was the first act of Die Walküre in concert performance but it was preceded by The Ride of the Valkyries and, more substantially (if not louder) Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra Op.6. It’s an interesting piece; post tonally expressionist with obvious homages to both Wagner and, especially, Mahler. Sir Andrew gave it one of the best introductions of the kind that I have heard; situating it not just in the Viennese musical lineage but also drawing helpful parallels with the visual arts; Klimt, Kokoschka etc. He also produced a reading of great clarity from the orchestra. It’s easy for a big piece of this kind to dissolve into a sort of aural mush and thereby give the “I don’t like this modern stuff” crowd ammunition that it’s just “noise”. Here the various strands, the references and even the musical jokes of the three movements were clearly delineated. Lovely stuff.
There’s much to like in this year’s unfussy TSO Messiah. It’s not bloated. For most of the piece conductor Johannes Debus deploys around thirty strings, chamber organ, harpsichord, oboes and bassoon. Trumpets and timpani are added for the grand moments later in the piece. He even manages to get quite a delicate sound out of the largish (100+) Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. The delicacy is a recurrent thread. That and a really bouncy sense of rhythm. One could dance to Debus’ Handel.