Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Samuel Barber: Adagio for Strings; Violin Concerto (James Ehnes, soloist). José Silvestre White Lafitte: Violin Concerto in F Sharp Minor (third movement, Ehnes, soloist); Karen Sunabacka: The Prairies; Silvestre Revueltas: Sensemayá; Leonard Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Gustavo Gimeno, conductor. Roy Thomson Hall, Oct. 19, 2023. Repeats Oct. 21; tickets here.
Music of the Americas: It is a classic programming trope. Far from restrictive, it generally begets variety, as it did Thursday in Roy Thomson Hall. Unfortunately, this concert by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra varied in quality as well as content. We have heard better nights.
Occupying most of the second half were the Symphonic Dances from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. They constitute a crazy quilt of colours and rhythms in their own right. Normally jazzy and fun, the music was hard-driven as led by Gustavo Gimeno, not to say too loud at climaxes. “Somewhere” stood out as a lyrical exception to the noisy rule.
This followed Sensemayá, an overture by the Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940) that starts with an interesting sequence of solos (including one for tuba) but degenerates into a heavy-handed winds-and-percussion workout. Strings seemed hardly to matter.
There was a Canadian piece, The Prairies, an evocation of the outdoors by Karen Sunabacka. We heard crickets, geese and eddies of wind, the last evoked by brass players blowing through their instruments. Tones and intervals came later. Inventive as it was, the piece seemed short at five minutes.
The best music was heard before intermission. James Ehnes earned a Grammy in 2008 for a recording including Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto of 1939. On this occasion we were made to understand why. Cultivating a velvety tone in the first movement, he emerged from the pack in the Andante, which also featured a plaintive oboe solo. The relentless perpetuum mobile finale — not Barber at his best — was spotless. Gimeno oversaw a warmly integrated accompaniment.
Then came another finale: the third movement of Violin Concerto in F Sharp Minor by José Silvestre White Lafitte, 1835-1918, a French composer of Cuban birth and African and Spanish ancestry. That is quite a mix, but the piece proved to be entertaining in an entirely uncomplicated way. Ehnes adopted a more gleaming tone in this, before reverting to his interior style in the solo encore, a quietly magnificent performance of the Andante from Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Minor.
The concert began with Barber’s solemn Adagio for Strings, a coincidentally appropriate choice at a time when news of war is ubiquitous. Unfortunately, someone in the audience hooted enthusiastically after the searing climax, in effect interrupting the performance. I cannot say for certain that this was the most egregious display of idiocy I have ever encountered in a concert hall, but it ranks among the top (or bottom) five. One can only hope that there are no such demonstrations in the repeat performance on Saturday.
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