Mansouri, Liadov, Moussa, Beethoven: Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Gustavo Gimeno conducting; Garrick Ohlsson, piano. Roy Thomson Hall, Wednesday, May 25–Saturday, May 28, 2022. Tickets available here.
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra has turned its attention lately to new music, with respectable returns, to judge by the world premiere on Wednesday night in Roy Thomson Hall of Samy Moussa’s Symphony No. 2.
This Montreal-born and Berlin-based composer is the 2021-22 TSO “spotlight artist.” He is a favourite also of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, for which he has undertaken six commissions, including a 2021 Juno-winning violin concerto. European collaborators include the Bavarian State Orchestra and Vienna Philharmonic. This summer, his music is heard in the Hollywood Bowl. Mr. Moussa is on a roll.
One can understand why. His style is dense yet communicative, complex yet clear. While there were not many tunes to hum in this 20-minute symphony, there were themes and mottos to recognize in many manifestations. Some were scalar, others hymnlike. All moved forward with palpable energy under the sure baton of Gustavo Gimeno.
And sonorities! Had it achieved nothing else, the score would be remarkable for the alternative brass section it created, substituting flugelhorns for trumpets and a mellow euphonium (Vanessa Fralick, who had a solo) and tuba for the more acoustically out-there trombones. I recall being reminded of Wagner by Moussa’s longer (and perhaps more colourful) Symphony No. 1 “Concordia” of 2017. On this occasion, I thought of Wagner on period instruments.
Sibelius also came to mind as strings scurried in search of a key. There was a good deal of shimmering from mallet instruments. Mercifully, we were spared heavier percussion.
Textures were mostly full-bodied. The reduction of forces to a string quartet around the nine-minute mark was sudden and brief. A few more pauses might have been welcome in a work (allegedly in three movements but running uninterrupted) that was mostly about process and motion. But, there was hearty applause as it all concluded with a heroic major triad. Moussa climbed to the stage to take a bow.
Afarin Mansouri, an Iranian-Torontonian composer, was also present for the premiere of Mithra: Celebration Prelude. At about three minutes, this piece seemed a too short — even as a program opener — to bear its own weight of cinematic colour (to say nothing of its mythological backstory). After this, Gimeno, his arms aloft, led a lush but firm account of Anatoly Liadov’s impressionist canvas of 1909, The Enchanted Lake. There were many fine solos.
The certified masterpiece of the evening, Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, came after intermission. Elbow issues sidelined the original piano soloist, Daniil Trifanov, so Garrick Ohlsson, an American veteran, flew in, along with his customary polish and near-spotless virtuosity. This was an elegant interpretation of the substantially heroic score, with burnished rather than vehement double octaves in the first movement.
The Adagio was taken quickly, arguably in keeping with Beethoven’s “un poco mosso” qualification. Accompanying triplets in the left hand were clear. It was interesting, and refreshing, to hear this normally dreamy movement presented with its rhythmic credentials intact. A tad soft-toned for the sparkling finale, the Steinway proved suited to Ohlssohn’s encore, the first movement of the “Moonlight” Sonata, solemnly done.
The smallish crowd was enthusiastic. There are two repeats, Friday at 7:30 and Saturday at 8.
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