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SCRUTINY | A Fiery Finish to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra Season

By Joseph So on June 25, 2017

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra performs Carmina Burana with guest soloists
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra performs Carmina Burana with guest soloists

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra concludes its 2016–17 season with Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. It has been a tendency of the TSO to program a choral/vocal spectacle or two towards the end of each season. I recall a fantastic Verdi Requiem a couple of seasons ago. This month, we’ve already had terrific performances of Belshazzar’s Feast and Seven Deadly Sins. But here, the TSO saved its best for last in this series of four performances.

Composed in 1936, the Orff gained immense popularity in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It became one of the most-performed large-scale choral pieces, with many commercial recordings vying for our attention. Given it’s less ubiquitous these days, it’s nice to be re-acquainted with its magic. Orff chose 24 poems from Latin text dating from the 11th or 12th centuries, unearthed from a Benedictine monastery in Upper Bavaria. The text deals with the vagaries of nature and the fickleness of human life, with all its pleasures and pain – all expressed in a rather uncomplicated way, and always with energy and passion.

Indeed, energy and passion were what defined the performance on Friday night. Peter Oundjian threw himself into the monumental work, conducting with a deft baton. Most importantly, there was a real sense of joy, something lovely to see. With appropriately brisk tempi, he raised the musical temperature to a scorching level: exciting, yes; raw, never!  From the very striking opening of “O Fortuna,” one is completely drawn into the drama. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir sang with impressive power, energy and incisiveness. I was particularly struck by how youthful the women sounded, almost like a treble choir – and I mean that in a good way!  The Toronto Children’s Chorus provided the proper sound of innocence, so important in this piece.

The trio of soloists was as good as it gets. The tenor has only one aria, “Cignus ustus cantat” in which a swan laments his fate as a roast on the dinner table. It’s a real challenge given its high tessitura – most (but not all) sing it in falsetto. Here we have the ideal interpreter in countertenor Daniel Taylor, who certainly made a meal of the aria, pun intended!  He injected the necessary humour into the piece, really the only way to do it. The baritone has a lot more work, with music that taxes both extremes of his range. Phillip Addis – a noted Pelleas – has the upper extension in his lyric baritone to do it full justice, singing an outstanding “Dies, nox, et omnia.”

But top vocal honours of the evening deservedly belonged to soprano Aline Kutan, who astounded the audience with the soaring beauty and purity of her sound. Her “Dulcissime” could hardly be bettered. It opens on a high note, held rock steady, resplendent and without any hint of harshness, later ascending up to a high D. “In trutina” is written much lower in the soprano’s range. While Kutan doesn’t have quite the power in her middle voice, she offered a caressing warmth that was altogether winning.

Nicola Benedetti performs with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and conductor Peter Oundjian (Photo: Jag Gundu)
Nicola Benedetti performs with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and conductor Peter Oundjian (Photo: Jag Gundu)

I’d be remiss if I forget to mention the fine playing of the glamorous Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti, who contributed a brilliant virtuosic display in the Szymanowski Violin Concerto in the brief first half. Her playing was technically brilliant, but always at the service of the music and its inherent lyricism. Hers was the playing of not so much a brilliant technician, but that of a mature and refined artist.

Downtown is jammed with many events and hellish traffic, but it was well worth the effort to get to Roy Thomson Hall.

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Joseph So

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