Toronto Symphony Orchestra with Kirsten MacKinnon (soprano), Lauren Segal (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Haji (tenor), Tyler Duncan (baritone), Peter Oundjian (conductor), Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, at Roy Thomson Hall, Thursday through Saturday.
Standing ovations can be both inevitable and deserved. There were a few on Saturday evening in Roy Thomson Hall, before and after Peter Oundjian led his last performance as music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
The most extended, naturally, followed the prestissimo conclusion of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which had its usual exhilarating effect. Indeed, the entire fourth movement, plunged into without a break, was vital and forward-moving in a manner to remind us that Beethoven in his visionary sixth decade retained the energy of youth.
Yes, you could tap your foot to this finale, while admiring its many felicities, including a silky introduction of the “Ode to Joy” theme in the cellos and basses, which rose steadily to a forte statement in the winds and brass, a little faster at this point, and why not?
Whether baritone Tyler Duncan sounded as impressive in the upper galleries as from a seat up close and far to the right — or tenor Andrew Haji as clear, or soprano Kirsten MacKinnon and mezzo Lauren Segal as sweetly harmonious — these are all conjectures, but I am prepared to guess that they did.
The 140-strong Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, on stage rather than in the loft, could hardly have failed to make an impact throughout the hall in the great climaxes, including the high-altitude fugue. These choristers know the music and love it. Strings in the instrumental fugue reminded of us of the calibre of playing we have become accustomed to during the Oundjian years.
It could not be said that the first movement was captured in all its gravitas. There was something in-between-y about Oundjian’s approach, neither brisk nor monumental. The Scherzo had a proper rhythm to it, but I was literally in no position to assess the balance. Suffice to say that I might now know the trumpet and trombone parts by heart.
Nor did I quite trust my perspective on the Adagio molto e cantabile movement. First violins sounded distant. Second violins and violas, however, were warm in their entry with the second theme. Oundjian seemed to identify with this celestial music, his left hand sculpting the air expressively.
It should be noted that violins were divided left and right with cellos and basses to the left. So it was in Bruckner’s Eighth and (I am told) Mahler’s Ninth. Curious for a conductor to experiment with a new configuration in the last months of his directorship. On the other hand, here is evidence that Oundjian has not lost his curiosity or ceased to grow.
The evening had its ceremonial elements, including recognition by concertmaster Jonathan Crow of the retirement of violinist Hyung-Sun Paik, who joined the TSO in 1980. We heard God Save the Queen and O Canada, performed in keeping with the presence of Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell. She later joined TSO interim CEO Gary Hanson on stage to pay tribute to the man of the hour.
It will surprise no follower of the TSO to be told that Oundjian gave a graceful and heartfelt address touched with humour that put everyone at ease. He was standing in front an ensemble he had substantially built, speaking to people who are probably just beginning to wonder how the orchestra will fare without him.
Oundjian will be back in 2020 as conductor emeritus. The substantial music will be Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. Looking forward to it.