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”.
On Babi Yar there are no monuments
The real monument to those; young and old, Jew and gentile, who died in the horror that was Babi Yar are Yevtushenko’s words and Shostakovich’s searing setting of them in the opening movement of his thirteenth symphony. It’s a symphony that combines sheer horror with the kind of blistering irony that is unique to Shostakovich. It’s a work that I first met in my teens and like so much Shostakovich it has run like a leitmotif through my adult life. So I was deeply moved to hear it given a red blooded, almost balls out Russian style, performance by the TSO last night. No doubt a Russian conductor; Andrey Boreyko, and a superb Russian bass soloist; Petr Migunov, played a large part in that but so did the players of the TSO and the men of the Amadeus Choir and Elmer Iseler Singers. The brass was strident and the percussion very loud where it needed to be though there was delicacy too from the rumble of the opening line quoted above to the faint dying away of the last note. Most excellent.
There was also a very nice performance of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 but that’s not what I was there for. This program will be repeated at Roy Thomson Hall tonight at at 7.30pm and tomorrow at 3pm at the George Weston Recital Hall.
Photo credit: Malcolm Cook
The TSO’s New Creations Festival wrapped up last night at Roy Thomson Hall with a concert featuring Brett Dean’s suite Knocking at the Hellgate, drawn from his 2004 opera Bliss. But first came a piece by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood. Water is a tone poem (if one can still use that term) inspired by soome lines from Philip Larkin:
If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.
Written for a chamber orchestra including two tanpuras and amplified piano, it’s an atmospheric piece mixing elements of minimalism and dissonance with extended techniques in the strings and note bending in an extremely competent way. A fairly gentle introduction to what was to follow!
I suppose it’s a bit odd to go out to a symphony concert on a cold night out of interest in one twenty minute piece on the program but that’s what I did last night. The item of interest was Henri Dutilleux’ Correspondances and the attraction was that the soloist was Barbara Hannigan. It’s an unusual piece. The five texts include, conventionally enough, three poems; two by Rilke and one by Prithwindra Mukherjee. The two longer texts are letters; one from Solzhenitsyn to the Rostropoviches and one from Vincent Van Gogh to his brother. The music is atmospheric and covers a wide range of moods from ecstatic to despairing. It’s heavy on percussion and makes considerable demands on the vocal soloist. Parts of it lie very high and it really needs the exquisite attention to each syllable of the text that is Hannigan’s trademark. Little shifts in the vowels, the occasional drop into something approaching Sprechstimme and so on. I thought the TSO and Peter Oundjian were really quite impressive here too. The piece got the clarity and transparency it needs. That said, it’s one of those pieces that few people, I think, will fully appreciate on one hearing. Fortunately there is a very good recording of Hannigan singing it with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and Esa-Pekka Salonen.
The piece was bookended by Sibelius’ Swan of Tuonela and Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique. The Sibelius was extremely well played with some lovely playing in particular from the cor anglais. The Berlioz isn’t a piece I much care for and both of us were a bit under the weather so we skipped out after the Dutilleux. If you missed last night’s performance it’s on again tonight at 8pm.
Photo credit: Malcolm Cook.