Keiko Devaux: Arras / Mahler: Fourth Symphony; Nicolas Ellis, conductor; Karina Gauvin, soprano; TSM Festival Orchestra. Koerner Hall, July 28, 2022
The 2022 Toronto Summer Music Festival bade farewell to its mainstage venue Koerner Hall last evening with a remarkable performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, in a special arrangement for chamber ensemble by Klaus Simon.
The concert opened with the 2020 Azrieli Music Prize and Juno Award-winning Arras by Canadian composer Keiko Devaux. She draws inspiration from her dual-cultural heritage, the natural environment, and Japanese and French musical and religious traditions. The resultant work fully reflects her intentions, with instruments generating extramusical sounds that are evocative of all the above. Underneath all the unusual sounds is a tonal and lush melodic line to satisfy traditionalists like yours truly.
As I’ve often said, to truly understand new music takes time and repeated hearings. That’s because our traditionally trained classical music ears are not attuned to the new sounds produced by the instruments. It’s upon repeated hearings that we can truly absorb the piece and provide an honest opinion. Judging by the audience reaction last evening, there were a couple of naysayers, but the TSMF audience was overall very receptive.
The centrepiece of the evening was the Mahler Fourth Symphony, reduced for chamber ensemble. This is arguably Mahler’s best known symphonic work, perhaps sharing top honours with Symphony No. 8. Voice fans are drawn to Mahler Fourth and its divine last movement with soprano soloist. The text is a child’s view of heaven, and to sing it well, the soloist needs a voice of freshness and beauty, as well as a sense of wonder.
TSMF has the ideal soloist in Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin, whose gleaming tone, smiling face and engaging stage persona were ideal in this piece. Now in her third decade of an illustrious career, the voice remains remarkably fresh, even if the lowest reaches aren’t ideally powerful. It was a performance to savour.
The TSM Festival Orchestra consists of only 14 musicians, including a pianist and an accordionist in this piece, under the baton of conductor Nicolas Ellis. To be honest, I was astounded that such a small ensemble could pull off a piece like Mahler Fourth. These fourteen musicians played their collective heart out, as if each was a soloist — in a way they were indeed soloists, each with multiple moments to shine.
To my own surprise, I find myself liking this reduced chamber version very much. It has a feeling of immediacy and passion, no doubt due to the committed playing and conducting. If I were to nitpick, I missed the smooth, mellow sound, a blending of instruments that only comes with a larger orchestra. But this reduced version is a refreshing experience, one that I won’t soon forget, and a fitting farewell by the 2022 TSMF to this wonderful venue called Koerner Hall.
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