SCRUTINY | TSO And Jan Lisiecki Impress With Pre-tour Teaser At Roy Thomson Hall

By Anthony Kershaw on May 5, 2017

Peter Oundjian conducts TSO (Photo: Jag Gundu)
Peter Oundjian conducts TSO (Photo: Jag Gundu)

Toronto Symphony Orchestra with Music Director Peter Oundjian and pianist Jan Lisiecki. Roy Thomson Hall. May 4.

With Peter Oundjian’s contract set to expire next year, the upcoming tour to Europe and Israel will be the orchestra’s last with Oundjian as Music Director. By any account — orchestral standards, innovative programming, recording, and tours — Oundjian’s long tenure has been spectacularly successful.

Way back in 2004 when he took over the reins of a fairly disheartened band, I remember saying ‘who?’. It did not take this energetic, wonderful musician much time to improve the fortunes of the orchestra. In the here and now, I would place the Toronto Symphony easily in the top ten of North American orchestras, probably right after the Big Five and L.A. Yes, that good.

Along with Oundjian’s excellence, quality hires have made a huge impact. The orchestra has some spectacular players in its midst, and all players celebrate as a cohesive whole. As such, ensemble is crackerjack, and solos are distinctive and distinguished. This was much in evidence in today’s afternoon performance.

The concert began with Iris (a TSO commission) by the orchestra’s Juno nominated, RBC Affiliate composer Jordan Pal. The almost thirteen-minute work was tonal and colorful with Pal showing great understanding of musical texture and instrumental timbre. With no melody to speak of, the listener was left with the large orchestra to fill in the melodic gaps. Pal did this expertly.

Jan Lisiecki, Peter Oundjian (Photo: Jag Gundu)
Jan Lisiecki, Peter Oundjian (Photo: Jag Gundu)

With few modulations and a fairly static moderate tempo, the blocks of sound, large climaxes, and lovely orchestration helped deliver a satisfying musical experience. If you’re trying to imagine the sound, think Scriabin, Delius, Sibelius and Debussy as inspiration. Lots of flute noodling, trombone glissandos, muted trumpets, and string effects. Oundjian and the orchestra gave Pal a performance of his dreams.

The piano soloist in the Schumann Concerto was 22-year-old, Calgarian Jan Lisiecki. Much has been written about his prodigious talent. He was signed by the premier classical recording company, Deutsche Grammophon, when he was fifteen.

Lisiecki gave a remarkably assured performance of this most gracious of concertos. His playing reminded me of Schumann’s introspective imaginary character Eusebius rather than the fiery and passionate Florestan. There were a few ensemble inconsistencies that I’m sure will straighten out on the upcoming tour. That said, Oundjian shaped the orchestral phrases beautifully, especially the woodwind choir in the opening of the first movement.

Jan Lisiecki, Peter Oundjian_2 (Photo: Jag Gundu)
Jan Lisiecki, Peter Oundjian_2 (Photo: Jag Gundu)

Lisiecki really got to shine in his encore, Chopin’s C minor Nocturne, Op. 48. Here, there was real introspection and fire. The audience was enraptured.

Béla Bartók was living in near poverty and very poor health in New York City when Boston Symphony Orchestra Music Director Serge Koussevitzky offered him a commission to celebrate the orchestra’s 50th anniversary. This energized Bartók to compose what many consider the finest orchestral work of the 20th Century Concerto for Orchestra [1943]. It was composed in a mere six weeks.

The five-movement work tests an orchestra like few others. Extreme dynamics, virtuoso ensemble writing, solos for all, special effects (timpani glissandos, harp strings struck with metal, ‘col legno’ and muted strings, etc), even a parody of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 (Leningrad) replete with musical ‘raspberries’.

The orchestra did not let their energetic conductor down. The solos were characterful and each section showed off its particular colour beautifully. The wide dynamic range made for quiet mystery or massive orchestral tuttis and every marking in between.

After a long concert last night, an afternoon show the following day of a completely different and equally challenging program can be difficult. Fatigue does creep in even with the consummate professionals of the TSO. And a few brass cracks and wrong notes were dotted about. But these very small imperfections came nowhere near damaging either Oundjian’s magical interpretation or the orchestra’s magisterial sound.

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