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SCRUTINY | Unabashed Romanticism The Secret Ingredient In Powerful TSO Concert

By John Terauds on December 8, 2016

John Storgårds conducts Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 with the TSO at Roy Thomson Hall (Photo: Jag Gundu)
John Storgårds conducts Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 with the TSO at Roy Thomson Hall (Photo: Jag Gundu)

Toronto Symphony Orchestra, with conductor John Storgards and pianist Lukas Geniušas. At Roy Thomson Hall. Dec. 7.

Hearing the all-Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky program presented by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thompson Hall on Wednesday night was a breath of fresh air. Given the popularity of the two main works on the bill, that may seem like a strange thing to write. But the well-worn music from the late 19th-century felt rejuvenated and re-energized at the hands of Finnish guest-conductor John Storgårds, who, among other posts, now works with the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa as its principal guest conductor.

Think of a mirror that you pass by every day in a room or hallway. Your reflection looks perfectly fine. But one day you bring along some cleaning spray and give the mirror a wipe, only to be taken aback by the newfound clarity and depth of the image reflected back at you. Storgårds took that proverbial bottle of Windex to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, which dates from 1888.

The results were breathtaking, mainly because of the honesty and forthrightness with which Storgårds addressed its unabashed Romanticism. Phrases were taut yet gracefully outlined. Themes and their counter-themes were balanced, cleanly laid out. The TSO’s strings were gorgeously full and lush, yet still delivering bite when they needed to. Best of all, the conductor demonstrated his great mastery at toying with time, gracefully speeding up and slowing down, and always letting the score be suffused with the breaths and pauses of silence.

This was not the work of a showman or someone with something to prove. Instead, this was careful musical interpretation true to the demands of the composer and his era, yet delivered as if it was being created anew just for us, more than a century later. (There was even a moment of unintended drama as Storgårds accidentally hit the music stand with his baton during the final movement, sending the broken section flying over the woodwinds. No one was hit.)

Pianist Lukas Geniušas and guest-conductor John Storgårds with the TSO (Photo: Jag Gundu)
Pianist Lukas Geniušas and guest-conductor John Storgårds with the TSO (Photo: Jag Gundu)

The same description holds true for the evening’s guest soloist, young Moscow-born pianist Lukas Geniušas, still riding high from his silver-medal win at the Tchaikovsky Competition a bit more than a year ago. He tackled Tchaikovsky’s warhorse Piano Concerto No. 1 with gusto yet also with a sense of playfulness and whimsy that often made it sound more like he was making it up on the fly. His technique is impeccable, but that is a given these days. What truly delighted was his freedom with the solo bits, especially the quieter passages, which he treated with a tender intimacy that never descended into full introspection. He and Storgårds were in perfect harmony in their musical approach, which made for a coherent, powerful interpretation.

Geniušas treated the appreciative audience to a gossamer reading of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Op. 32 Prelude in G-sharp minor. It was a seductive, shimmering performance that made me wish for an opportunity to hear him again in a solo recital in Toronto.

The opening work on the program was Tchaikovsky’s abbreviated suite of incidental music for a production of Hamlet, full of dramatic transitions and statements. It was an opportunity for Storgårds to demonstrate his athletic abilities on the podium, and for the TSO to respond in kind.

This was a glorious night of Romantic listening for a near-capacity audience. Too bad there is no repeat performance for those not lucky enough to have had a ticket. It has also been a good week for the orchestra, not just in the quality of their artistry and cohesion, but in their unexpected financial surplus from the previous season. It just goes to show that, if the music moves people, they will open their wallets to make sure there will be much more to come.


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