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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | Toronto Symphony Serves Up Meaty Program With Planets And Two Premieres

By John Terauds on January 26, 2018

Toronto Symphony Orchestra with John Storgårds (conductor) and Andrew McCandless (soloist) (Photo: Jag Gundu)
Toronto Symphony Orchestra with John Storgårds (conductor) and Andrew McCandless (soloist) (Photo: Jag Gundu)

Toronto Symphony Orchestra with conductor John Storgårds. Roy Thomson Hall. January 25. Repeats Jan. 26 & 27. Tso.ca

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is offering up a rich and muscular program presented with verve this week at Roy Thomson Hall with guest conductor John Storgårds.

The first performance on Thursday night was well-attended, as Torontonians were granted an opportunity to hear a piece by Igor Stravinsky that had been thought lost until a couple years ago, the local premiere of a new Canadian trumpet concerto, and a vivid interpretation of a symphonic chestnut: Gustav Holst’s The Planets.

It is quite likely that the majority of the youthful and enthusiastic audience hadn’t come for the premieres, but these were as compelling as the main piece on the bill.

Canadian composer John Estacio is one of the rare members of his profession who has managed to be equally successful with instrumental works as well as opera. His Trumpet Concerto, co-commissioned by the Toronto Symphony and completed in 2017, will get a total of 19 local premieres by orchestras across the country over the course of the season. If Thursday’s performance with TSO principal trumpet Andrew McCandless was any indication, it is likely to find a regular spot on our concert programs.

Estacio was one of the first contemporary composers in this country to come out of the closet as an advocate of tonal music. As his music — and the new Trumpet Concerto — demonstrate, there is a lot of life left in those old musical tools known as melody, harmony and counterpoint.

The 20-minute, three-movement concerto follows classic architecture, sandwiching a slow movement between a carefully elaborated first and a brisk third. That slow movement, subtitled Ballad, allowed Estacio and McCandless to showcase the expressive range of an instrument we all to often associate with bugle calls, The final movement was a rare modern depiction of humour in music, with all sorts of clever rhythmic twists on a lively 6/8 time signature. The first movement has a gloomy or foreboding undertone that effectively created dialogues between the soloist and orchestra.

Toronto Symphony Orchestra with John Storgårds (conductor) and Andrew McCandless (soloist) (Photo: Jag Gundu)
Toronto Symphony Orchestra with John Storgårds (conductor) and Andrew McCandless (soloist) (Photo: Jag Gundu)

The whole piece is a showcase of the trumpet players art and craft. This is also music that is easy to listen to, that is emotionally engaging, that uses all of the sound colours of the orchestra, and has enough complexity in its architecture to sustain the interest of a wide variety of listeners.

The TSO’s interpretation was strong, but I kept thinking some of the orchestral playing could have been a bit tighter – something that could well improve in the two subsequent performances this week.

The same criticism holds for the Stravinsky piece, Funeral Song, written as a response to the death of his beloved teacher, composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, in 1908. The work from Stravinsky’s mid-20s shows his developing signature style of small layered motifs, which are played slowly in this darkly atmospheric work. The orchestration is transparent, which is merciless to an orchestra that is not in perfect sync,

But that is really a minor criticism. Storgårds shaped the score nicely, and the Funeral Song itself deserves to have a place in mainstream repertoire, alongside the composer’s other work.

Storgårds encouraged the musicians to give their all in the First World War-era Planets, which they did in a tight, sharply articulated interpretation. There was a visceral quality to the performance on Thursday night that made this old chestnut sound fresh and compelling. The vocal parts in the final movement, Neptune, were nicely filled offstage by the female members of the Elmer Iseler Singers. (And in what must be a rare occurrence, one of the French horn players snuck off to join the singers just before their cue to sing.)

The quality, depth and substance of the pieces on this program make them fit together very nicely. Storgårds is an excellent musical leader — one we could enjoy seeing on the Roy Thomson Hall stage more often.

LUDWIG VAN TORONTO

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John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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