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SCRUTINY | A Soaring Holiday Pops With The TSO And Matt Dusk

By Brian Chang on December 12, 2018

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presents the TSO Holiday Pops featuring Matt Dusk and the Etobicoke School of the Arts Holiday Chorus with special costumed guest. Conducted by Steven Reineke Dec 11, 8pm & Dec 12, 2pm & 8pm. Conducted by Lucas Waldin Dec 13, 8 pm & Dec 15, 8:30 pm. Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto. Visit www.tso.ca for ticket information.

Three songs into the program, Matt Dusk walks onto the stage, a spin and a slide into the centre stage whitewashed-blue lights and he starts “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” Dusk is a charming performer, dressed dashingly in a slim suit with a suitably sparkly black slim tie. He looks the part of a charmer, and his voice is more than up to the task of melting some of the grinchy hearts out there this season.

“Playing in Toronto is always a pleasure,” shares Matt Dusk to Ludwig Van Toronto earlier in the week. “It allows me to have more fun on stage instead of worrying about travelling from city to city. Having the opportunity to perform with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is amazing. This is a dream come true!”

Matt Dusk, Steven Reineke, TSO Holiday Pops (Photo: Jag Gundu)
Matt Dusk, Steven Reineke, TSO Holiday Pops (Photo: Jag Gundu)

These concerts are sponsored by the International Economic Forum of the Americas Toronto Global Forum event taking place from December 11-13. Bringing together 3500 business, political, and civil society leaders to dialogue on the world’s pressing economic, social, and political issues. Roy Thomson Hall served as a reception for attendees before joining the audience for the concert. TSO CEO Matthew Loden was joined by Air Canada Director of Business Development Bambina Marcello, on behalf of the Toronto Global Forum, in sharing the land acknowledgement and opening the concert’s festivities.

Anyone who knows TSO Pops knows that Principal Pops Conductor Steven Reineke is a show unto himself. Watching his smooth control of the orchestra, with crisp signals, hopping energy, and beaming charisma – this is a person who loves their work. A signature of Reineke conducting is his finishes; often done in superman pose ‒ right hand with baton pointing high into the sky ‒ ready to take flight and soar. With Reineke flight-ready on the podium, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra annual Holiday Pops, with guests Matt Dusk and the Etobicoke School of the Arts Holiday Chorus made sure that everyone felt the holiday spirit cheer.

The Orchestra was in fine shape, taking on their second set of Pops performances this season. Reineke hailed their “incredible versatility” as he led them on a journey of holiday music that spanned the gamut of bossa nova, jazz, classical, music theatre, bolero, and waltz. Pops performances are always a chance to experience a myriad of sounds in Roy Thomson Hall.

Fresh off their run with former TSO Associate Conductor Earl Lee’s Tchaikovsky concert,  Reineke also programmed the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.” Played with a nuance and gentleness, the famous Bass Clarinet 5-note descending pattern was recently parodied by Miles Jaques and other TSO musicians on Instagram. No tipsy playing was found here, but maybe some sassy Sugar Plums made their way onto the stage when we weren’t looking.

The Etobicoke School of the Arts Holiday Chorus was beefed into the hall through microphones from their spot on the choir loft. Reineke programmed many choral works for this concert, including an arrangement of “The First Noël” with a simple piano and cello accompaniment.   Excerpts from Hockman and Clurman’s Songs of Freedom: a Celebration of Chanukah were presented as well. The thickly orchestrated movement “Oh Chanukah! Oh Chanukah!” had text obscured by an unbalanced orchestra. At times, it was only the visual cue of the Choir’s mouth’s moving that gave any indication they were singing away, buried underneath the sound. The second movement, “Haneirot halalu,” stripped down the orchestrations to a a more manageable accompaniment of harp, bells, flute, and oboe. Here, the choir’s skill was apparent, and it was lovely.

The choral highlight of the evening was when their conductor and teacher, David Ambrose, took the stage to lead the Dan Forrest arrangement of Sir John Goss’ “See, amid the Winter’s snow.” The choir relaxed into this performance, familiar to the gestures and flow of Ambrose’s conducting. This beautiful performance by the choir was a particular gem in a night packed with many.

The solo highlight of the evening was “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Dusk sat on a stool for this song, no awkwardness, no disconnection. His voice was effortless and engaging. Performances like these, without pretense, without overindulgence, strip a singer down to their core, and Dusk showed audiences that he’s more than capable of holding his own against the beloved Sinatra holiday anthem.

Santa Claus (Kevin Devaux), Steven Reineke, Matt Dusk, TSO Holiday Pops (Photo: Emma Badame)
Santa Claus (Kevin Devaux), Steven Reineke, Matt Dusk, TSO Holiday Pops (Photo: Emma Badame)

“For me, the holiday season is all about music,” shares Dusk. “So many of the songs I perform and listen to are rooted in tradition. Our family still plays the same records by Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, and Burl Ives. As soon as the needle hits the vinyl, it brings me back to my childhood.”

Matt’s mother, Cora, has sung with me in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir for years. In the audience for the performance, she’s aglow at all his success. The week previous, I chatted with her about family traditions and music. “When Matt was a child he was always surrounded by music,” shares Cora. “I was working with a church choir as he was growing up and I was always responsible for preparing the choir for Christmas. We even had a few rehearsals in our house.” As Matt grew and moved on to St Michael’s Choir School, the holidays were always busy with church services, school concerts, and family gatherings.

Cora does note that once upon a time, it was hard to make him sing; “I’ve enjoyed the holidays and just getting together with people. We’ve always had a full Christmas table. And it’s been a blessing for all of us to be together like that. But as he got older, we had to bug him to sing, and eventually, he would reluctantly, sing.” Thankfully, Matt’s not shy for these performances and keeps alive his family music traditions with the TSO Holiday Pops.

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