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SCRUTINY | Mahler By Robertson & TSO Attends To The Basics

By Arthur Kaptainis on November 23, 2023

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Photo courtesy of the TSO)
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Photo courtesy of the TSO)

Toronto Symphony Orchestra: Berg: Seven Early Songs (Emily D’Angelo, mezzo-soprano); Mahler: Symphony No. 5. David Robertson, conductor, Roy Thomson Hall on Nov. 22. Repeats Nov. 24 (7:30 p.m.) and Nov. 25 (8 p.m.). Tickets here.

Mahler symphonies are self-recommending highlights of any Toronto Symphony Orchestra season. Expectations ran particularly high for the Fifth as originally booked with Michael Tilson Thomas as conductor.

Unfortunately, MTT has been forced to curtail his travel. David Robertson, another experienced American, was brought in as a substitute Wednesday in Roy Thomson Hall, with respectable if not quite optimally Mahlerian results.

David Robertson conducts the TSO (Photo: Stelth Ng)
David Robertson conducts the TSO (Photo: Stelth Ng)

The notes were there, and played better than passably. This was, after all, the TSO. Martial assertions in the opening minute were strong but the long, songful melody for strings that followed had minimal curvature. Waltzes and other characteristic Viennese elements were left to fend for themselves. Even the famous Adagietto seemed non-committal.

Cheery music fared better. Winds sounded frisky in the Scherzo. Principal horn Neil Deland was asked to play his prominent solos from a standing position stage left, a requirement that involved some time-consuming backstage migration. He would have made an equally strong impression had he stayed put.

The best playing of the evening was in the finale, with its contrapuntal scurries and blazing fanfare at the end. An agile figure on the podium, Robertson seemed to have the measure of this upbeat music. Perhaps the repeat performances of Friday and Saturday will occasion a fuller realization of the score. Not that the audience showed any signs of dissatisfaction. (Or, happily, any inclination to clap between movements.)

Emily D'Angelo with Maestro David Robertson and the TSO (Photo: Stelth Ng)
Emily D’Angelo with Maestro David Robertson and the TSO (Photo: Stelth Ng)

At 75 minutes, the Fifth requires a compact but consequential first “half,” in this case Alban Berg’s arch-romantic Seven Early Songs. Our soloist was mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo, a known commodity in her native Toronto and elsewhere. Unfortunately, her voice on this evening lacked carrying power. Nor was her tone significantly varied. The sound opened up somewhat in the encore, Clara Schumann’s Lorelei, as orchestrated by Cecilia Livingston (who stepped up to the stage to take a bow). Again, we can expect better in the repeat concerts.

The Berg was made doubly disappointing by the absence of texts and translations in the printed program. Let us hope that this was a one-time-only oversight.

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Arthur Kaptainis
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