Half empty or half full? This depends, on your point of view, but if the quality of music-making is factored in, the latter descriptor applies to Roy Thomson Hall on Thursday and a concert by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
The program was aimed more at the connoisseur than the grand public, with Benjamin Britten’s seldom-heard Violin Concerto of 1939 at its centre. This is a deep rather than flashy score. Our soloist, Baiba Skride, generated a glowing vibrato in the opening movement that nicely complemented the subtle orchestral writing, which casts the timpani in an uncharacteristically melodic role.
The Scherzo was appropriately muscular but this Latvian violinist made her biggest impression in the long and songful cadenza leading to the finale. Fine tone and thoughtful phrasing kept the small crowd entranced. Not a cough to be heard.
Thomas Søndergård, the Dane who succeeded Peter Oundjian as principal conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, teased out Britten’s manifold orchestral inspirations without infringing on the prominence of the soloist. He was no less successful in maintaining a balance in Les animaux modèles, a six-movement suite by Francis Poulenc that — like most of this 20th-century Frenchman’s music — should be heard more often. The orchestra, traditionally configured with violins on the left and cellos and basses on the right, seemed to capture all the tenderness and splendour of the idiom.
Then, as a climax, came Debussy’s La Mer. A couple of early brass blips aside, the great triptych emerged evocatively. Textures were transparent, rhythms free, yet nothing was lacking in cohesion or momentum. There was magic at the end of the central movement, “Jeux des vagues,” with its flickers of harp, flute and muted trumpet.
Using the score and wielding his baton in a natural, unpretentious style, Søndergård gave the impression of a good musician who means business. For better or worse, he got all the garish sonorities of Thomas Adès’s disagreeable Dances from Powder Her Face at the beginning of the evening.
This concert (repeated Saturday) followed the announcement by the TSO of significant progress in its combat against the deficit dragon. An orchestra that plays like this is worth supporting. There will, however, be a challenge at the box office as Torontonians await the coming of Gustavo Gimeno in September 2020. That is not the day after tomorrow.