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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | TSO's Mahler Six Rates At Least A Seven

By Arthur Kaptainis on November 24, 2017

Donald Runnicles guest conducts the Toronto Symphony through Mahler's 6 (Photo: Jag Gundu)
Donald Runnicles guest conducts the Toronto Symphony through Mahler’s 6 (Photo: Jag Gundu)

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Mahler Symphony 6. Donald Runnicles (guest conductor) at Roy Thomson Hall. Thursday. Repeats Saturday, Nov. 25.  

Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is a colossus by virtue of its length (83 minutes Thursday night in Roy Thomson Hall), the number of players involved (108, including Toronto Symphony Orchestra regulars and extras) and the range of emotion it traverses. The latter was considerable in this performance overseen by Donald Runnicles, even if I harbour a suspicion that the repeat on Saturday will raise the ante in exactitude and tonal lustre.

Tall, burly, open-collared and left-handed, this Scottish conductor was an active presence on the podium, beating time with big gestures and demanding expression as often as he elicited it. Happily, his feeling for rhythm was free, and his dynamic range was broad. One felt that Mahler’s unpredictable shifts in psychology were faithfully represented.

Notes were not attended to quite so assiduously in the first movement, particularly near the end, where some imperfections in the brass were made all the more prominent by Runnicles’s decision to rearrange the orchestra. We are used to seeing first violins, cellos, double basses to the left of the conductor but it was odd to find the timpanists (Mahler requires two) in the percussion ghetto rather than closer to the centre.

To hear the normally side-by-side tuba and double basses hail each other from a distance at the beginning of the finale was interesting enough, but I sometimes had the sense that there was a price to pay in coherence. Nor was the placement of the famous cowbells entirely satisfying. They were too far backstage to be part of the acoustic landscape.

Now that I have got all that off my chest, I can focus on the positive aspects of the evening, particularly in the Andante moderato, in which the 16 first violins, after a subdued start, spoke eloquently. There were fine dabs of pastoral colour (and a lyrical horn solo) in this movement, placed third in defiance of the order indicated in the program (Andante-then-Scherzo being Mahler’s second and presumably authoritative choice).

Donald Runnicles and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Photo: Jag Gundu)
Donald Runnicles and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Photo: Jag Gundu)

Either way, the trio sections of the Scherzo sounded easygoing and rustic, the oboe nicely observing the composer’s requirement for an altväterisch (old-fashioned)  sound. The half-hour finale raged and receded as it should, the quiet interludes mysterious and hammer strokes thudding. The instrument, incidentally, was a Thor-class model of 15 pounds custom-made in British Columbia and wielded by the TSO’s new percussion principal Charles Settle, about whom I guess I had better say nice things.

To produce a brief “Sesquie” prelude to a work of such magnitude is a tough assignment, but Tobin Stokes prevailed. His Just Keep Paddling moved exuberantly through what sounded like a Canadian landscape. At points, I thought of a train rather than a canoe. Runnicles seemed to take an active interest in the piece. As, indeed, did the audience. Had composer and conductor left the stage more promptly, there might have been a curtain call.

There was hearty applause for the Mahler, after the mandatory interlude of awestruck silence (this symphony leaving us no consolation).

It probably should be mentioned that Runnicles is installed at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, but appears to have an opening in his schedule after leaving the BBC Scottish Symphony. Even if this concert was not quite sign-him-up material, it qualifies as bring-him-back. Wish I could hear the Saturday concert.

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Arthur Kaptainis

Arthur Kaptainis

Arthur Kaptainis has been the classical music critic of the Montreal Gazette since 1986 and wrote for the National Post 2010-2016. His articles have appeared in Classical Voice North America and La Scena Musicale as well as Ludwig Van. Arthur holds an MA in musicology from the University of Toronto.
Arthur Kaptainis
Arthur Kaptainis

Arthur Kaptainis

Arthur Kaptainis has been the classical music critic of the Montreal Gazette since 1986 and wrote for the National Post 2010-2016. His articles have appeared in Classical Voice North America and La Scena Musicale as well as Ludwig Van. Arthur holds an MA in musicology from the University of Toronto.
Arthur Kaptainis
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SCRUTINY | TSO's Mahler Six Rates At Least A Seven

By Arthur Kaptainis on November 24, 2017

Guest conductor Donald Runnicles and a rearranged TSO pounded a Mahler 6 into submission for the first of two concerts at Roy Thomson Hall on Thursday. Here's what we thought about it...
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