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SCRUTINY | Toronto Summer Music Festival’s In-Person Opening Concert Is A Cause For Celebration

By Joseph So on July 27, 2021

Jonathan Crow and Philip Chiu (Photo: Ryan Chiu)
Toronto Summer Music: Jonathan Crow and Philip Chiu (Photo: Ryan Chiu)

Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata for Piano and Violin, No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24 “Spring”; Reena Esmail: When the Violin. Jonathan Crow, violin; Philip Chiu, piano. Grace Church on-the-Hill, 10 a.m., 26 July 2021

It’s been a long time coming.

For nearly a year and a half, COVID-19 has robbed us music lovers of something very precious: attending live performances. The last one I went to was the Canadian premiere of Jonathan Dove’s Mansfield Park, staged by the University of Toronto Opera, way back in March 2020. Between that and today’s performance was a long hiatus of 16 months and 14 days. In the interim, I have been drawing musical sustenance from online streaming. But I’ll be honest—it’s just not the same. We attend concerts for the wonderful music, but also for the communal experience, where fellow music lovers gather to cheer the performers on, and to share in what we love. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, when violinist Jonathan Crow played the opening melody of the sublime Beethoven “Spring” Sonata, I felt a lump in my throat, an unexpected emotional response. It was the realization that the in-person concert experience is back!

But, I am getting ahead of myself. Monday, July 26 marks the first day of a week of in-person performances by the Toronto Summer Music Festival at the beautiful Grace Church on-the-Hill, all with social distancing and government-stipulated health precautions. The performances are approximately one hour each, without an intermission. It’s a cautious beginning, but hopefully signalling a semblance of normalcy going forward. Today’s concert was the first of a series featuring Beethoven Sonatas, played by TSMF Artistic Director/TSO Concertmaster Jonathan Crow, joined by pianist Philip Chiu, who incidentally did double duty with a recital in the evening.

Jonathan Crow kicked off the proceedings with a brief but informative introduction to the program. He pointed out
the stylistic evolution of the Beethoven compositions as having progressed from the more formal styles of Mozart and Haydn. That said, the Sonata No. 1 in D Major, Op. 12, being an early work, still hearkens back a great deal to the earlier Classical period. Crow and Chiu played with exemplary precision and spirit, certainly living up to the designated “Allegro con brio” First Movement, a felicitous mix of discipline and exuberance. Bravi for a truly fine opening.

This was followed by When the Violin, a short composition by South Asian/American composer Reena Esmail. Her soundscape reveals an interesting mix of what is conventionally Western sonorities, with what’s to my ears a rather sinuous, slithering of pitches that are decidedly non-Western. One would not have thought the two would go together, but Esmail manages a harmonious mix that is pleasing to the ear. That said, I would need repeated hearing to fully appreciate it, which happily I can do since the online performance last week is archived.

This was immediately followed by what to me was the centrepiece of the concert, Beethoven’s sublime Sonata No. 5, in F Major, Op. 24 “Spring”. While I am game for something new like Ms. Esmail’s creation, I am not embarrassed to admit that the familiar strains of the gorgeous opening phrases of the Beethoven is like being washed over by a healing balm. Like one’s favourite pair or shoes or comfort food, I never get tired of it, especially when it’s so beautifully performed. Given that “Spring” signals a new beginning—never mind we are now closer to the dog days of summer—let’s hope the world turns over a new, COVID-free leaf. It was to my ears the highlight of the one-hour concert.

The very appreciative audience gave the artists well deserved, sustained applause. One last point—while I am grateful to be at a live event after such a drought, the critic in me compels me to mention a fly in the ointment. I am referring to the high cathedral ceiling. While it’s great for the fire and brimstone of a Verdi Requiem, it is much too reverberant for intimate chamber pieces like this program. The piano lid was opened full stick; it’s much too boomy acoustically. Philip Chiu played wonderfully well, but what came out of the piano threatened to overwhelm the violin. For comparison, I went to the archived online concert, and the balance was perfect. Let’s hope some adjustments can be made in the next few performances.

I should conclude by urging everyone to go support the Toronto Summer Music Festival, and the performing arts in general. In the last year and a half, music lovers have been deprived of the physical experience of being in a concert hall. It’s back, albeit in a tentative way, for which we are grateful. The long abstinence underscores in no uncertain terms that it is music and the performing arts that feed the soul.

Be safe, listen to your heart, and go hear some great music.

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Joseph So
Joseph So
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