Kaija Saariaho: Ciel d’hiver; Brahms: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77; Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47. Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Tarmo Peltokoski, conductor; Jonathan Crow, violin. Roy Thomson Hall, January 29, 2023.
Podium prodigies seem to be getting younger. This past weekend, a Finnish conductor Tarmo Peltokoski, 22, made his North American debut at the helm of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
Twenty-two is an age when even the most promising of budding maestri are finishing their academic studies or learning the ropes as an assistant. Peltokoski has already secured directorships and principal guest posts in Bremen, Riga, Rotterdam and Toulouse.
The concert on Sunday, the second of two in Roy Thomson Hall, gave us to understand why. Blessed with a natural baton technique, Peltokoski is as athletic and demonstrative as they come, swaying, crouching, punching and pointing according to the needs of the music — or, to be more precise, his idiosyncratic view of it.
From the start of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, led from memory, Peltokoski proved to be a formidable manager of tempo and volume with a willingness to elide bar lines and push dynamics to extremes. Sometimes the result was positive, as in the Allegretto movement, where the pulse shifted continuously with no loss of waltz character. He even danced through a couple of measures himself.
The Largo, on the other hand, was stretched and subdued almost to the point of dissolution. Winds played their lonely solos beautifully, but the effect was more pictorial than tragic.
The finale got off to a big, tough start — great brass — that suggested a sardonic interpretation was in the offing. At the end we were left unsure. Perhaps it can be said that by investing everything, including the apparently heroic passages, with high conviction, Peltokoski remained true to the ambiguous character of this controversial movement.
The conductor made an outsize contribution also to Brahms’s Violin Concerto, performed with TSO concertmaster Jonathan Crow (dressed in a collarless shirt) in the title role. Rather than match Crow’s refined tone, Peltokoski fashioned an aggressive accompaniment that was notably loud and fast in the Adagio. A consummate pro, Crow was able to adapt to the competition, and made a good case for both the defiant and lyrical elements of the solo part. Interesting that he materialized at the back of the first violins after intermission for the Shostakovich. That is what I call a work ethic.
None of the above commentary should be taken as a denial of Peltokoski’s tremendous talent and power to hold your attention. His extroverted podium style proved helpful to an appreciation of Ciel d’hiver by his compatriot Kaija Saariaho, the 10-minute exercise in dissonant atmospherics that started the program.
The sizable audience awarded everything a suitable ovation. There was a big hand before the second half for trumpeter James Spragg, playing his last concert as a member of the TSO after 36 years with the orchestra. We wish him the best.
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