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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

Review: Former Toronto Symphony Orchestra music director Jukka-Pekka Saraste serves up bowl of mushy peas

By John Terauds on March 29, 2012

Former music director Jukka-Pekka Saraste joins the Toronto Symphony Orchestra this week.

You know the Toronto Symphony Orchestra has come a long way over the past decade when a competent concert is nowhere near good enough anymore.

That sentiment became amply clear in the company of former music director, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, on Thursday night at Roy Thomson Hall.

The conductor, orchestra and special guest, Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, all did a respectable job. But they needed to sparkle rather than simply be okay, if they wanted to measure up to the standard the orchestra sets at its concerts these days.

Part of the problem can be attributed to three works long on atmosphere but, without a strong vision from the person wielding the baton, having too much potential for coming up short on dramatic flair.

The first piece, Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’s 1926 tone poem Tapiola, is a chilly stroll in some darkly forbidding woods. It has no greater purpose than to paint interesting colours with different sections of the orchestra.

Saraste led a performance that had no desire to follow or find an obvious destination, and which repeatedly neglected the violins in favour of deeper-sounding sections of the ensemble.

In the closing piece, the familiar, four-movement Symphony No. 3 composed in 1883 by Johannes Brahms, Saraste was more concerned with highlighting little details over giving the work a larger shape or sense of momentum.

The result was pretty, but rarely striking; competent, but certainly not arresting.

Pekka Kuusisto

Kuusisto, the evening’s violin soloist, is a proven firecracker whose fuse was a bit soggy on Thursday night, as he needed the help of a score to get through Sergei Prokofiev’s World War I-era Violin Concerto No. 1.

Although the piece contains many technical hurdles, they are cloaked in light musical forms that emphasize lyricism over fire.

Kuusisto’s playing, although finely nuanced and note-perfect, rarely rose beyond the printed score. The soloist’s personality was on standby while Saraste kept the orchestra on a low simmer through much of the three-movement work.

The result was a bowl of tasty, mushy peas, rather than something dramatic or memorable.

This was a concert that used top-of-the-line talent but obtained middle-of-the-road results.

There’s nothing wrong with middling, but in a city filled with fine musical options on any night of the week – and with a catalogue of electrifying performances already behind it this season – the Toronto Symphony can do better than this.

The program repeats Saturday evening at Roy Thomson Hall. Details here.

John Terauds

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