Toronto Symphony Orchestra with guest conductor Andrey Boreyko and pianist Lucas Debargue. Roy Thomson Hall. April 12. Repeats April 13 at 2 pm.
Despite the most thoughtful efforts of the people who plan the Toronto Symphony Orchestra concerts with music director Peter Oundjian, the programming can work at cross purposes on certain evenings, as was the case on Wednesday night at Roy Thomson Hall. The TSO, its guest conductor Andrey Boreyko — music director of the Orchestre National de Belgique and the Naples Philharmonic in Florida — and visiting soloist were all in top form, offering the substantial audience many moments of intensely beautiful music making, but the choice of pieces had some unintentional side-effects.
The symphonic monument on the program, which repeats Thursday afternoon, was the Third Symphony by Johannes Brahms. It’s one of the Great Works of the repertoire, dating from 1883. In this four-movement work, the composer carefully weaves his thematic material into a deep, rich orchestration remarkable for its multitude of imaginative contrapuntal lines. Boreyko crafted each movement into a sensuous whole. He had a way of softening the edges of the music without diminishing its power, texture, colour or rhythmic vitality. Although the styles are different — late Romantic versus Modern — the experience was not unlike beholding a Henry Moore sculpture in music.
But having such expertly wrought Brahms on the program also meant that the other three works had a lot to live up to.
Making his Toronto debut was French pianist Lucas Debargue, playing Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which found its final form in the early 1860s. Debargue made waves at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow two years ago. He took fourth place, which left the many audience members and critics who had fallen in love with his performances deeply upset. Debargue created enough of a sensation to land prestigious concert and recital dates, has since released a couple of albums with Sony, and has even found time to complete a music degree.
The pianist took the poet’s approach to Liszt’s work, caressing the keyboard on the German-made Steinway grand like an expert musical seducer. He found languors in the score that many other pianists charge through with a greater sense of purpose. Debargue and Boreyko were in perfect sync throughout the concerto, but the lack of movement in its slower sections heightened the multiple contrasts and shifts of mood in the piece to the extent that the overall interpretation felt a bit disjointed.
Although the Liszt concerto is a great showcase for a pianist’s technique, it is a fairly garish sort of creation, especially when the orchestra breaks out in a high-stepping march-like riff toward the end of the piece. Liszt wins in the listen-to-this department, but not in sensitive craftsmanship.
Debargue treated the audience to a solo encore, Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1, further demonstrating the delicacy of his touch and his desire to make every line of music, no matter how simple, sound as beautiful and polished as possible. It was a pleasant antidote to the sturm und drang of Liszt’s extroverted pianistic excursion.
The evening began with three shortish works, including the requisite Sesquie, one of the 2-minute program openers co-commissioned to celebrate Canada’s 150th. Dark Forest, the one assigned on Wednesday, was by Prince George, BC-based Simon Cole. This little amuse gueule set in dark colours — and filled with sophisticated development of musical ideas abruptly cut short by the 2-minute egg timer, was followed by The Isle is Full of Noises, a 12-minute tone poem inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, commissioned by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra for a 2013 premiere.
Written by University of Toronto-based composer Christos Hatzis, the symphonic piece aims to tell a story in a long, sweeping arc, but Hatzis chose to focus his attention on generating a series of blown-in, and blown-away episodes redolent with twinkly, distracting effects that included heavy breathing and humming from members of the orchestra. Hatzis’ cleverness worked at cross purposes to that long narrative ark, resulting in a choppy piece of music that begged for more sustained, uninterrupted thematic development.
At this point in the 21st-century, we have been freed by the atonalism and other abstractions of 20th-century modernism, allowing composers to return to tonal writing and to introduce clear musical themes without fear of embarrassment. But as is the case with star chefs working madly to put clever things on our plates, the substance of the original ingredients can get lost in the process.
Thank goodness we had Boreyko, this fine orchestra and Johannes Brahms to show us what real substance sounds like.