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SCRUTINY | Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev Makes The Most Of Balletic TSO Programme

By Arthur Kaptainis on November 30, 2023

Maxim Emelyanychev conducts the TSO (Photo: Jag Gundu)
Maxim Emelyanychev conducts the TSO (Photo: Jag Gundu)

Toronto Symphony Orchestra | Humperdinck: Prelude to Hansel and Gretel; Marjan Mozetich: Concerto for Bassoon and String Orchestra with Marimba (Michael Sweeney, bassoon); Tchaikovsky: The Sleeping Beauty (suite compiled by Maxim Emelyanychev). Maxim Emelyanychev, conductor, Wednesday Nov. 29 at Roy Thomson Hall. Repeats Thursday Nov. 30 at 8 p.m.; Friday Dec. 1 at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday Dec. 3 at 3 p.m. Tickets here.

A staple of the ballet repertoire, The Sleeping Beauty is seldom heard in the concert hall, even in the form of the five-movement suite created and published after Tchaikovsky’s death. Maxim Emelyanychev, a young Russian conductor, made his Toronto Symphony Orchestra debut Wednesday in Roy Thomson Hall with his own compilation of 12 numbers (or more, depending on how you count the variations). The 50-minute result had its moments, but was ultimately a vindication of the composer’s own reluctance to leave a suite to posterity.

To describe many of the selections as sub-symphonic is no criticism of Tchaikovsky, who was tasked with creating colourful and danceable music for the stage. There were certainly passages with outward appeal, and a few palpable hits, above all the waltz, warmly intoned by the TSO strings. But too often, the listener had to edit in mentally the tights, tutus and fairytale scenography.

Emelyanychev provided some choreography himself. Lean and agile, this 35-year-old dispenses with the baton, with the consequential expansion of freehand gestures. He puts on quite a show, but the motion is geared to the music. It seemed at points that he sought applause between movements. He got some after the monumental finale of Act 1 — I think. Low lighting in the hall made it hard to follow the programme.

Maxim Emelyanychev conducts the TSO (Photo: Jag Gundu)
Maxim Emelyanychev conducts the TSO (Photo: Jag Gundu)

The TSO responded well to Emelyanychev’s active approach. Winds were vibrant. Principal cello Joseph Johnson dealt smoothly with a solo that sounded like an excerpt from the Fifth Symphony (which was composed around the same time).

Before intermission, we heard Marjan Mozetich’s Concerto for Bassoon and String Orchestra with Marimba, with TSO principal bassoon Michael Sweeney (who commissioned and premiered the work 20 years ago) as the authoritative soloist. Starting in high Rite-of-Spring territory, Sweeney traversed the range of his instrument confidently without sacrificing its mellow essence.

There was a fair amount of minimal bubbling but as in many works by this Kingston-based Canadian, the lyrical component was preeminent. String writing was inventive, and the marimba (smartly played by Charles Settle) offered steady comment without seeming intrusive. Still, at a little more than the advertised 21 minutes, the concerto did put a lot of pressure on its store of musical ideas. Separate movements would have helped.

Bassoonist Marjan Mozetich (Photo: Jag Gundu)
TSO principal bassoon Michael Sweeney (Photo: Jag Gundu)

Emelyanychev provided exacting direction and the players supported their colleague (who is retiring as principal after this season) handsomely. The concert began with a straight-up performance of the Prelude to Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, an opera generally associated with the holidays.

There were two encores, both selections from Act 3 of The Sleeping Beauty. Not exactly demanded, they sent people home in a reasonably good mood. Emelyanychev has a boyishly winning way on the podium. He also has some novel ideas about orchestral configuration, seating the violas beside the first violins and splitting the double basses, four on the left and four on the right. I still prefer the old clockwise formation with second violins beside the firsts, but this new arrangement sounded balanced.

The crowd was small, Emelyanychev not being a known commodity in North America. He has an array of desirable engagements in Europe, however, as well as a steady job as principal conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. In a programme essay, TSO music director Gustavo Gimeno predicts mysteriously that this visit will “signal the start of a fruitful artistic collaboration that endures for many years to come.” It would be good to hear what Emelyanychev can do with a stronger programme.

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Arthur Kaptainis
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