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 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.
I went to see the TSO last night because there was a Boulez piece programmed that I wanted to hear. It was a rather odd evening. It kicked off with Morawetz’ Carnival Overture Op.2. This was I suppose the designated Canadiana. It’s a roughly five minute piece that sounds like the Brahms of the Academic Festival Overture crossed with Dvořák. Too much brass and cymbals for my taste. Then came about ten minutes of faffing about reorganising the stage for the Boulez followed by Peter Oundjian coming out and making one of those cringingly apologetic speeches for programming something “difficult”. I hate this. If an orchestra, opera house or chamber ensemble is going to program atonal, serialist or what you will music (and they should) by all means explain how it works in a program note but don’t patronise the audience and, above all, don’t apologise. If it needs an apology why are you programming it?
Last night saw the opening concert of the TSO’s New Creations Festival. It opened with a sesquie by Andrew Staniland; Reflections on “O Canada” After Truth and Reconciliation. Sesquies are two minute “fanfares” composed to commemorate Canada’s 150th. Staniland’s version was a bold attempt to deal with the immensely complex subject of reconciliation between Canada and its native peoples and, of course, one can’t do that in two minutes in any medium. Reflections was an interesting stab though. It was structured as a very quiet canon for high strings in a minor key using the principal theme of O Canada and ending with an overblown fanfare in the winds. You can apply your own political interpretation.
There must have been a lot of cash slopping around in the music world in Mahler’s day. Imagine taking a new work to a symphony management today and saying “I’ve got this hour and a half long piece that needs a star mezzo and three choirs for about ten minutes. Fancy giving it a shot? Oh and it needs a bazillion players in the brass section.” Anyway that’s Mahler’s 3rd symphony for you and the TSO did it last night with Jamie Barton as soloist and the ladies of three choirs plus a children’s chorus. All in all it had far too much of the Mahler I don’t much care for; repetitively bombastic, and not enough of the kind I do; the bits with a kind of ethereal transcendent beauty. And it really goes on a bit. The last movement in particular has so many climaxes, and anti climaxes, that, at the end, the audience weren’t sure that it was really, finally over. I’ll take the 2nd or the 8th or one of the shorter pieces over this one anytime.
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”.