Programming is a mystical art. Rather than ponder the imponderable and seek to understand why Gershwin’s Concerto in F and Brahms’s First Symphony are not compatible, let’s accept the Toronto Symphony Orchestra outing of Wednesday (repeated Thursday) as two concerts separated by an intermission.
Both had qualities. The Brahms means a great deal to Peter Oundjian, who explained in a characteristically engaging warmup commentary that he was asked in his Juilliard days to conduct the Andante sostenuto by a certain Herbert von Karajan.
You could feel the love at the beginning of the B section of this movement when the violins rise and (with the violas) descend so songfully. There was much tenderness from the oboe. It seems to me that the price you pay for a get-along tempo is a somewhat rushed-sounding solo violin.
The pace seemed just right in the third movement, which was animated by a liquid clarinet. Horn and flute gave us a stirring tour of the Alps in the introduction to the finale, the hymn tune of which was as warm and lyrical as can be imagined. Oundjian led it first with his left hand, later with his right, an interesting (and probably unconscious) example of how a good conductor maintains a feeling of wonder in a well-trodden masterpiece.
As glowing as the brass fanfares were – as exciting the final pages – we could still recall the fury of the opening, the guest timpanist summoning double trouble by banging two drums tuned to C. The punch and roughness of the first movement should lead to resolution, and so it did.
The concert started with Three Dance Variations from Fancy Free, Leonard Bernstein’s breakout ballet of 1944. If repeated often, even audaciously syncopated rhythms can be boring. Then came Gershwin. Jean-Yves Thibaudet was the original soloist, and part of the rationale for the participation of Pride Toronto as a community partner in this concert.
The French pianist cancelled, creating an opportunity to hear Jon Kimura Parker, a phenomenal technician in a world of phenomenal technicians. Sporting a Pride button and his trademark 88-key smile, this Canadian approached the 35-minute jazzy colossus with the perfect combination of extrovert virtuosity and (notably in the cadenzas) lyrical flair.
Perhaps reasoning that Parker can cut through anything, Oundjian elicited a huge, blaring sound from the orchestra. Occasionally the balance seemed top-heavy (and even in Brahms I sensed less than ample lower-string support). Few in the audience were disposed to complain, judging by the ovation that greeted the grandioso conclusion of the first movement, which is a concerto unto itself. The trumpet solo of the second movement stuck me as too self-consciously bluesy. Again, the cheers suggested that this was a minority view.
Faced with an audience response he might have predicted, Parker offered a solo encore, Blues Etude by Oscar Peterson. In a quick spoken introduction, the pianist compared the number of notes in this flamboyant piece to the people Oundjian has touched with his music. Apparently, quite a few. Sometimes you listen to a pianist like Parker and wonder how it is possible.