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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | Conductor Boreyko Gets To The Heart Of Babi Yar

By Arthur Kaptainis on May 14, 2016

Petr Migunov, Andrey Boreyko, the TSO & Men from the Amadeus Choir and the Elmer Iseler Singers. (Photo: Malcolm Cook)
Petr Migunov, Andrey Boreyko, the TSO & Men from the Amadeus Choir and the Elmer Iseler Singers. (Photo: Malcolm Cook)

Toronto Symphony Orchestra with Andrey Boreyko (conductor) at Roy Thomson Hall. Saturday, May 14.

Six to one. Three to two if conducting ability were all that mattered. Those are the odds I give Andrey Boreyko as a candidate for the music directorship of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

I base these numbers not only on Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 “Babi Yar” as heard Friday night in Roy Thomson Hall but also a TSO performance of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony in 2011. On both occasions, the conductor got to the harrowing heart of the music and brought the best out of the players (and on Friday, choristers) in front of him.

The dual challenge is considerable in the Shostakovich, a substantially choral work that takes its name from the site near Kiev of a Nazi massacre of mostly Jewish civilians in 1941 (or more specifically, Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s reflections on this atrocity). After voicing “one unending soundless scream over the thousands upon thousands underground” the score weaves a tapestry of commentary on prejudice, oppression, the silent strength of Russian women, the bombast of bureaucrats and potentates (Soviet examples definitely not excluded) and the ever-present fear (which the composer knew so well) of the “knock on the door.” 

The orchestra is enormous, and Shostakovich is not afraid to use it. Yet all the fortissimo passages, however weighted by brass and percussion, sounded grand rather than raucous. And at the other end of the volume scale, the simple stepwise motion of cellos and double basses could seem full of latent meaning. Fear and hope maintain a dynamic tension in a performance like this. One extreme validates the other.

Facing forward, Boreyko deployed a wide range of gestures to elicit a like array of colours. Sometimes the baton cut sharply; elsewhere a palm would smooth over the edges. I believe I saw some finger-waggling à la Valery Gergiev. But all of this movement fell under the aegis of artistry, not showmanship. Boreyko is not one to flash a profile or play to the audience. There is too much music at stake.

Of course, what he got was also what he was given, by sturdy brass, lucid strings, speaking woodwinds and exacting percussion. Tuba and horn deserved their bows. In the loft were the approximately 45 men of the Amadeus Choir and Elmer Iseler Singers. They proved equal (as prepared by Lydia Adams) to the raspy whispers Shostakovich requires as well as the Red Army Chorus unisons.

Our soloist, Petr Migunov, was classed as a bass. Some listeners might be inclined to add a hyphen and “baritone” to his designation. Either way, he was a wonderfully incisive narrator who seemed to be giving voice not simply to vivid words but to the soul of the people.

One serious handicap to full appreciation was the decision of the TSO to print the Yevtushenko texts in Cyrillic script rather than in a transliteration, making the effort of following the English something like a nonstop game of Sudoku. Except for Russian speakers – who had no need for the translation! 

It is hard to find a coupling for a work like Babi Yar. The TSO opted for the standard solution: Mozart. Julian Rachlin was the sleek and elegant soloist in the Violin Concerto No. 5. Boreyko fashioned a fastidious accompaniment. Take note that first and second violins were divided in both this and Shostakovich, with violas oddly on the conductor’s left. The important thing was that the sound was cohesive. There is a repeat performance Sunday at the George Weston Recital Hall. Go to www.tso.ca.

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Arthur Kaptainis

Arthur Kaptainis

Arthur Kaptainis has been the classical music critic of the Montreal Gazette since 1986 and wrote for the National Post 2010-2016. His articles have appeared in Classical Voice North America and La Scena Musicale as well as Ludwig Van. Arthur holds an MA in musicology from the University of Toronto.
Arthur Kaptainis

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