Bramwell Tovey and the Vancouver Symphony were in town last night for a one night stand at Roy Thomson Hall. My reason for going was primarily to see Marion Newman sing Ancestral Voices; a work composed for her by Tovey. It’s the composer’s contribution to the sesqui and it deals with the Dominion of Canada’s troubled relationship with the original peoples of this land. The four movements trace an arc from an imagined pre colonial “Arkady” cleverly using a Keats text that deals with a clearly not Canadian imagined state of nature through to Charles Mair’s The Last Bison; a very early warning of what happens when Man and Nature get out of balance. Then comes the most chilling part; an excerpt from a letter in the government archives about residential schools”…separate, isolate, educate; dominate, assimilate; Sow the seeds and forcibly, effectively; Kill the Indian in the child.” It concludes with fragments of letters from Harper and Trudeau cut with parts of the UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples.
I went to Roy Thomson Hall last night to hear an all Vaughan Williams program conducted by Peter Oundjian. It’s not really my thing but there was a fine quartet of soloists lined up for the Serenade to Music.
Things got going with the Fantasia on “Greensleeves” which was perfectly OK if a bit hackneyed. There was a decent account of the Concerto for Oboe and Strings with Sarah Jeffrey as the soloist. Then there was the Serenade. For some reason the soloists were lined up with the choir (the Elmer Iseler singers) behind the orchestra. The result was sonic mush and textual porridge. I caught exactly one word of the text; “stratagems” for what it’s worth. The rest was not recognisable as English, let alone understandable. And, of course, it was too dark to read the supplied text. This despite soloists; Carla Huhtanen, Emily D’Angelo, Lawrence Wiliford and Tyler Duncan, who are consistently excellent with text. This is becoming very annoying. As often as not when I go to see the TSO do vocal works the soloists are either inaudible or incomprehensible. I know the hall is difficult but the performance of the Ryan Requiem last week showed that it is possible to showcase singers. I think it’s really unfair to audiences and singers alike. Anyway, I was so fed up that I left at the interval.
Photo credit: Jag Gundu
Last night’s TSO program started off with a sort of Remembrance Day pot pourri; pipes, bugles, a bit of poetry, an excerpt of Vaughan Williams in between and finally a rather beautiful account of The Lark Ascending with Jonathan Crow playing the solo from high up in the Gallery. Once upon a time the TSO would do Remembrance Day by performing an appropriate work or works, Britten’s War Requiem for example. I think that might actually be a more effective way of remembering.
Last night’s TSO concert was billed as a Tribute to Maureen Forrester with Ben Heppner MCing. Inevitably the main even was Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde but first there was a sesquie and the premiere of a new piece; L’Aube, for mezzo and orchestra by Howard Shore (he of Lord of the Rings etc). This was a setting of five poems by Elizabeth Cotnoir. It was retro, lush, tonal and, in a sense, well crafted but with very little variation between the movements, all of which were very slow. Susan Platts rich mezzo added to the rather soporific effect. Call me an unreformed modernist if you like but I’m really not sure what a piece like this adds to the symphonic repertoire.
It was an unusual double bill at the TSO last night; the premiere of Alexina Louie’s Triple Violin Concerto and Brahms’ A German Requiem. The concerto is an interesting piece. It’s got a layered, shimmery quality that sounds quite modern without going off into territory that would frighten the punters. It also makes excellent use of the three virtuoso soloists for whom it was written; Jonathon Crow, Yosuke Kawasaki and Andrew Wan; concertmasters respectively of the the TSO, the NAC Orchestra and l’Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal. It clever plays the combinations of having soloist dialogue with soloist and soloists dialoguing individually and collectively with the orchestra. Very enjoyable.
Last night the TSO gave the last concert of the Decades Project. Starting, inevitably, with a sesqui, the first half continued with a fine performance of Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with Nicola Benedetti as soloist. In some ways it’s an odd piece to use to characterise the 1930s (but then so is Carmina Burana!). It’s high romantic in tone and style. Lush even. It’s also extremely well crafted with a rather luscious part for the soloist played quite beautifully by Ms. Benedetti.
Last night’s Decades series concert featured three works from the 1930s plus a sesqui. The sesqui, Andrew Balfour’s Kiwetin-acahkos; Fanfare for the Peoples of the North was definitely one of the more interesting of these short pieces. There were elements of minimalism combined with a nod to Cree/Métis fiddle music. Quite complex and enjoyable. It was followed by Barber’s rather bleak Adagio for Strings and the Bartók Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. It’s familiar enough fare and was well played by the orchestra under Peter Oundjian. I particularly enjoyed some of the weird percussion/celesta effects in the third movement of the Bartók. But really I was there for the second half of the program.
The Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra and their conductor, Vladimir Spivakov, played Roy Thomson Hall last night. The first part of the concert was all instrumental and rather fine. I was struck by the small band’s ability to vary the weight and richness of their sound to match the mood of the music. Their treatment of Mozart’s Divertimento No.1, for example, was quite lean and sinewy. On the other hand the string sound, especially the cellos, was much richer in a very moving and idiomatic account of the Shostakovich Chamber Symphony in C minor. Things got even richer for Bruch’s Kol Nidrei where the orchestra was joined by 14 year old Israeli cellist Danielle Akta. The orchestral sound was sumptuous here but the real star was Ms. Akta. One expects virtuosity from the sort of young musician who tours with a major orchestra but one does not necessarily expect the kind of intensity that we got from Ms. Akta. She played as if she had the sort of life experience one would simply not wish on a young girl. Her instrument, an Orselli loaned by Dr. Moshe Kantor, was rather wonderful too. She can do virtuoso too as she showed in the Popper Concert Polonaise that closed a very satisfying first half.
The TSO’s Decades project has now reached the 1930s; very much home ground for me musically. Last night’s program explored different aspects of the music making of the period, including serialism, in a varied show of why this is not “music to be scared of”. It was also Sir Andrew Davis’ first appearance in his role of interim music director and supreme leader for life of the TSO.
The TSO’s season opener on Wednesday night featured Renée Fleming in one of her rare visits to Toronto. As one might expect for a crowd friendly season opener it was largely a collection of “lollipops” though the all Ravel first half of the program perhaps had higher ambitions. The orchestra kicked off with Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso; a rather vulgar piece full of castanets, twiddly Spanish tunes and solo bassoon standing in for a clown. I guess one could at least say that Peter Oundjian and the orchestra were well into the spirit of the thing. It was followed up with Schéhérazade. I’m not sure what the score markings on this are… perhaps “très langueurezzzzz”. It was a very Renée performance with beauty of tone (even in the soprano killing acoustic) dominating over drama or diction (though again I’m cognisant that the hall swallows words). It was a bit understated and I heard comments in the interval from people less well seated than myself that “they couldn’t hear a thing”.