Behind an unsuspecting program, the Toronto Symphony puts on a show for the eyes and (of course) ears
November 9th, 2022 | Roy Thomson Hall
BY MICHAEL ZARATHUS-COOK
We’re coming full circle: it’s actually refreshing when a program sticks to the old school, the meat and potatoes of the canon, taking a brief break from the premise of new music. While this dynamic Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) program - featuring Holst, Mendelssohn, Rossini, and Coleridge-Taylor - plays it safe, it manages to deliver the best show in town with an adventurous presentation. In my Globe and Mail review of the TSO’s season opener, I sought to put my finger on the pulse of the orchestra’s programming ethos: come for the old but stay for the new. This pulse remains, but it’s perfectly fine if it occasionally skips a beat with retro-programs like this that shift the focus towards the orchestra itself, and to just how much fun there is to be had on stage. With orchestras everywhere clamouring to be as relevant to the emergent now as possible, there’s a new metric to set the posers from the breadwinners: can you serve old recipes on dazzling new platters? On its surface, this program is mostly basic-cable, a random assortment from the TSO’s centennial jukebox. But the flesh-and-blood execution of these slightly anthemic pieces, presents something else entirely. In short, the vibes were immaculate and galactic, from downbeat to finale.
This program doubles as a history lesson, a retrospective on the orchestra’s recent history via the vehicle of its previous music director, Peter Oundjian. When Oundjian made his debut, as guest conductor, with the orchestra on October 24, 1998, that program opened with the same La gazza ladra overture as this program. And from the sound of a few particularly enthusiastic “Brava!”, a handful of audience members present that October might have been in attendance for this program as well. Oundjian is a TSO staple, regardless of how long he’s been gone (at his other gig as music director of the Colorado Music Festival) his ability to connect with audiences right from the drop is something special. My own introduction to the TSO in my teens was with Oundjian as conductor, and his knack for delivering little quips within the program - for those who didn’t read the program notes beforehand - is missed. Before Oundjian was Andrew Davis, yet another British conductor whose career is intertwined with the TSO’s recent history. Throughout this week I’ve been listening to the 1986 recording of Holst’s The Planets by the TSO, conducted by Davis and recorded in Kitchener, Ontario. Hearing this piece resurrected again nearly 40 years after that recording, in the same building where the orchestra then might have rehearsed it (the TSO moved into Roy Thomson hall in 1982), is exactly the sort of historical undertone that added an extra kick to the usual concert proceedings.
In practice, this program is a string of ten tableaus: Rossini’s overture, Mendelssohn’s Concert Piece No.2, Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade in A Minor, and the seven movements that make up The Planets. The order I’ve just listed matches the order in the printed program, though that’s not exactly how things unfolded—Oundjian opted to swap the placement of Mendelssohn and Coleridge-Taylor, so the former could dovetail into the intermission. Throughout these ten parts, the energy waxes and wanes but never dissipates. The Rossini overture is a light fanfare with instrumentation that matches well with the other items on the program—a top shelf performance as far as mic-checks go. The intrigue kicks into a more robust gear with the onset of the Ballade. I went down a bit of a rabbit-hole on Colerdige-Taylor and his use of Brahmsian hemiola while putting together the program notes for this item. Here’s a fun tidbit that didn't make it through editing: Coleridge-Taylor formed his baton with wood from a tree that was growing in the yard of Frederick Douglass. The performance was right on target, albeit overshadowed – as much of the first half was – by the mighty good time that orchestra had playing Mendelssohn’s Concert Piece No.2.
By far, the highlight of the night came by way of Miles Jaques (basset horn) and Eric Abramovitz (clarinet) tag-teaming for the Concert Piece. Talk about an entrance. The pair showed in matching glittering sequin tuxedos that caught and flung light throughout the hall. Jaques (black tux and blue bow tie) displayed the full range that can be covered by his instrument’s extra keys with virtuoso flourish. Abramovitz (blue tux and black bow tie) was far from an appendage to the basset horn, particularly shining in the improvised cadenza at the bottom of the Andante. The pair came back, following a feverish ovation, for a knives drawn tête-à-tête battle of woodwind wits, which ended with a draw. Even after the intermission that separated Mendelssohn from Holst, the energy generated by Jaques and Abramovitz could alone power the rockets needed to launch into the orbit of The Planets. During his stage banter at the start of the concert, Oundjian had little to say about Planets, perhaps on account of how ubiquitous it is across seasonal programs, how frequently it is referenced in popular culture, and how self-evident the viscerality of its sonic experience. He did however implore us to keep a keen ear out for the Toronto Children’s Chorus & Toronto Youth Choir’s part in the closing stretch of the Neptune movement. Their insertion into the soundscape could not have been more seamless. Offstage, their voices wafted in just barely above the wings of the string section, and they gently guided the intergalactic locomotive that took flight - nearly 50 minutes earlier - back down to earth.