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Concert review: Toronto Symphony Orchestra's Carmina Burana raises Roy Thomson Hall roof

By John Terauds on October 31, 2013

Tenor Nicholas Phan and Toronto Symphony Orchestra principal Neil Deland perform Benjamin Britten on Thursday night (Josh Clavir photo).
Tenor Nicholas Phan and Toronto Symphony Orchestra principal Neil Deland perform Benjamin Britten on Thursday night (Josh Clavir photo).

Thursday night’s concert by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall was so good it probably made its audience forget the day’s mayoral headlines, not to mention the legions of adult trick-or-treaters haunting the damp downtown streets.

The programme was a bit of a mess, but the three pieces were performed as well as we’re ever likely to hear.

Here were an orchestra, music director and multiple guests in peak form, delivering clear, honest and compelling renditions of three very different pieces of music from the mid and late 20th century.

The feature draw was an all-stops-pulled performance of Carl Orff’s modern classic from 1936, Carmina Burana. The Toronto Symphony was joined by 116 members of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, three-and-a-half-dozen young voices of the Toronto Children’s Chorus, Romanian-born soprano Valentina Farcas, American tenor Nicholas Phan and Canadian baritone James Westman.

Music director Peter Oundjian led a nicely modulated, clearly laid-out interpretation that offered a full, rich orchestral sound, remarkable precision from the choristers and a running narrative of viscerally engaging rhythms. The fortissimo passages were taken all-out, threatening to raise the hall’s circular roof a couple of times during the evening.

The three soloists were excellent, too.

The driven, earthy focus of Orff’s most popular creation would have been enough to wipe the day’s City Hall-related antics from our consciousness, but there was more.

Perhaps if the ongoing Ford saga had a soundtrack, it would run something like the three twisted dances from British composer Thomas Adès’ 2007 expansion of instrumental passages from his first opera, Powder Her Face, from 1995.

The music effectively evokes debauchery and downward spiral. Performed with a fierce precision at the start of the evening, it made a wild and often amusing statement.

Sandwiched between two pieces that are anything but subtle was Benjamin Britten’s very subtle, extended study on our mortal state, the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, from 1943. Oundjian had chosen this, a masterwork in many ways, as one of the pieces to mark the 100th anniversary of Britten’s birth.

The soloists were Phan and Toronto Symphony principal horn Neil Deland, both contributing subtle artistry and emotional power. Phan sang (here and in Carmina Burana) from memory, imbuing every note and phrase with purpose and shape. His amazingly flexible voice was a treat. And Deland’s horn sounded as if made from gold, not brass.

The Serenade, which collects six poems as well as a prelude and postlude featuring the horn played baroque-style (without using the valves), is a minefield of technical challenges for everyone on stage. At the same time, the music is as sheer as Myley Cyrus’s leggings, leaving the performers nowhere to hide.

Phan, Deland and the symphonic strings accompanying them were flawless, letting nothing get between the musical poetry and its audience’s ears.

Despite these three compositions not necessarily sitting comfortably on the same programme, this is an emotional ride not to miss.


There are repeat performances Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 8 p.m. Details here.

John Terauds

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