SCRUTINY | Varied Program, Varied Results From TSO

By Arthur Kaptainis on September 30, 2022

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra with conductor Gemma New and soloists Kerson Leong (violin) and Jean-Willy Kunz (organ) (Photo: Jag Gundu)
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra with conductor Gemma New and soloists Kerson Leong (violin) and Jean-Willy Kunz (organ) (Photo: Jag Gundu)

Mendelssohn: The Hebrides (“Fingal’s Cave”); Samy Moussa: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra “Adrano”; Chausson: Poème; Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3 “Organ Symphony”. Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Gemma New, conductor; Kerson Leong, violin; Jean-Willy Kunz, organ. Roy Thomson Hall, Sep 29–Sun, Oct 2, 2022. Tickets here.

Nice program. Imperfect concert. Let me explain.

The big item after intermission Thursday night in Roy Thomson Hall was the Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 (“Organ Symphony”), a splendidly pompous work whose more extrovert passages cannot fail. As performed by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra they did not fail. Strings were incisive, at least in the second movement, woodwinds peppy and brass robust, though sometimes rough. The majestic final pages elicited the customary standing ovation.

This score also has its interludes of introspection, which did not fare so well under the busy baton of Gemma New. The Poco Adagio section was drawn out and artificially subdued. Pizzicati had no presence. For all the gestures this conductor (in charge of the Hamilton Philharmonic and the somewhat more distant New Zealand Symphony Orchestra), lavished on each and every bar, the results were strangely inert. Jean-Willy Kunz was imported from Montreal to play the signature organ part.

Mendelssohn’s masterly Fingal’s Cave was the opener. New balanced the sections lucidly in a low-key presentation. The reprise of the second theme by the clarinet was nicely contoured.

Then came Samy Moussa’s Violin Concerto “Adrano,” a 14-minute piece that earned this Montreal native the 2021 Juno for Classical Composition of the Year. The nickname references a Sicilian town near Mount Etna and the fire god once thought to reside underneath.

Despite the backstory, the prevailing aesthetic is ethereal rather than volcanic, the violin often shimmering on high. There is a touch of Wagner in his quiet moods in this music, which nonetheless leaves an original impression, especially with its orchestration. Should the rising main theme, which returns so evocatively at the end, remind us of Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra? My guest for the evening thought so.

Kerson Leong was a subtle advocate of the solo part, and New’s penchant for restraint came in handy. This young Canadian was quietly impressive after intermission in Ernest Chausson’s lush Poème, which he projected with heartfelt phrasing rather than overt volume. Solid applause created an occasion for a solo encore: the Allemande from Eugène Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 4. Again, the approach was thoughtful. Intonation was superb.

Oddly, the intermission was placed after the Moussa, creating a first “half” that lasted less than 30 minutes. Violins were divided left and right, a configuration that (for better or worse) is becoming the new standard. I like the old layout.

This program is repeated Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. The TSO is on Star Wars duty next week. Music director Gustavo Gimeno returns on Oct. 12. Looking forward.

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