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”.
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.
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!