SCRUTINY | Conductor And Soloist Try The Soft Sell With The TSO

By Arthur Kaptainis on June 4, 2016

Toronto Symphony’s Daphnis et Chloé fulfills expectations with soloist Pekka Kuusisto and conductor Juanjo Mena.

Pekka Kuusisto, Juanjo Mena (Photo Emma Badame)
Pekka Kuusisto, Juanjo Mena (Photo Emma Badame)

Toronto Symphony Orchestra with Juanjo Mena (conductor), Pekka Kuusisto (soloist) and The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir at Roy Thomson Hall. 

Expectation and fulfillment: We get a bit of each every day, and giant helpings whenever an orchestra like the Toronto Symphony programs Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé as a complete ballet. This score is languorous and lavish in equal measure, and if the first of two performances in Roy Thomson Hall under the baton of Juanjo Mena was a little heavy on the languor, the emphatic moments had their properly fulfilling effect.

This was a technically accomplished account, with distinguished individual contributions, above all from the luminous flute of Nora Shulman in the Pantomime section of Part 3. Everywhere the soundscape was clear, if not always sensuous. There were added layers from the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, which perhaps could have played a larger role in the great climax of Daybreak.

One imagistic highlight was the incursion of brass instruments (successfully impersonating menacing pirates) on the soft wordless chorus of Part 2. Yet I must report on a few sleepy patches in Part 1 and Mena’s tendency here and there (with his long wingspan) to stretch the tempo and lower the volume more than was necessary or advisable. Even the opening was hard to detect amid the coughs of a few unpaid supernumeraries in the (rather small) crowd.

Pekka Kuusisto (Photo: Emma Badame)
Pekka Kuusisto (Photo: Emma Badame)

Before intermission, we heard Carl Nielsen’s Violin Concerto with Pekka Kuusisto in the title role. This Danish composer’s style is fundamentally boisterous, but both soloist and conductor seemed determined to make a delicate thing of the score. There were notable moments of introspection (and fine tone) in the cadenza of the finale (the only movement with a truly self-perpetuating tune). Mena evoked rich textures. All the same, the performance seemed out of step with the extraversion of the music. 

Not that the audience shared my reservations. Robust applause led to a modest Bach invention played in tandem with principal cello Joseph Johnson. The program began with the brief but evocative Intermezzo from Enrique Granados’s Goyescas, which featured soulful work by the cellos in the early going.

Broadcaster Tom Allen led an onstage introduction to Daphnis that included an interview of Mena, a native of the Basque Country who is convinced that the music of this region inspired Ravel’s off-kilter time signatures. All this was interesting, but a clearer rendering in the program of the narrative elements of the ballet (in a sufficiently illuminated hall) would have been an even better aid to pleasure and comprehension.


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