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SCRUTINY | Rachmaninoff Is The Highlight With Oundjian And The TSO

By Arthur Kaptainis on January 18, 2024

Peter Oundjian conducts the TSO (Photo: Allan Cabral)
Peter Oundjian conducts the TSO (Photo: Allan Cabral)

Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Katerina Gimon: Under City Lights, Forgotten Stars. John Adams: Saxophone Concerto. Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 3. Wednesday Jan. 17 at Roy Thomson Hall. Repeats Saturday Jan. 20 at 8 p.m. at Roy Thomson Hall and Sunday Jan. 21 at George Weston Recital Hall. Tickets here.

Rachmaninoff wrote three symphonies, of which the Second (1907) gets all the love. The Third (1936) also has its interludes of glory, as Peter Oundjian made clear Wednesday night in Roy Thomson Hall.

The white-haired TSO conductor emeritus is a busy figure on the podium because he identifies strongly with this lavishly romantic music. The players were into it as well. Strings had sweep and curvature, particularly in the flowing second theme of the first movement. The middle movement was a tone poem in its own right, moving cogently from chamber-like beginnings to brisk vitality and back. Percussionists (six of them) made themselves heard and felt, especially in the finale.

Many were the lucid solos. Concertmaster Jonathan Crow was in silky form. Credit clarinetist Eric Abramovitz for a softly magical introduction.

Standards of togetherness were high. Just like old times? Well, I happen to think that the TSO 10 years ago was in a very special place. At any rate, Oundjian is welcome back any time.

Steven Banks performs John Adams Concerto as Peter Oundjian conducts the TSO (Photo: Allan Cabral)
Steven Banks performs John Adams Concerto as Peter Oundjian conducts the TSO (Photo: Allan Cabral)

At least if the program is suitable, which is to say, not burdened with a half-hour clunker like the John Adams Saxophone Concerto of 2013. We can be grateful that this American superstar evolved beyond simple ostinato figures but here he struggles to find a coherent style to replace the old manner.

Notes spilled from the alto instrument of Steven Banks in torrents. The prolixity of the music was its only jazzy element. Gratuitous syncopations did nothing to enhance interest. Orchestration was clumsy. The first horn, inappropriately, was given a supporting role. Ensemble writing was so relentlessly complicated in the finale that it almost came undone.

If the performance had one redeeming quality it was the firm and glowing tone of the soloist, an American making his TSO debut. The encore, a version of the popular Albert Hay Malotte setting of The Lord’s Prayer, was radiant enough to suggest that a return visit is would be a good thing — in music worth the effort of all concerned.

The concert began with a brief bit of Canadiana: Under City Lights, Forgotten Stars by B.C.-based Katerina Gimon. The subject of the work, as the composer explained in an enthusiastic on-stage interview with Oundjian, is the obscuring of starry skies by urban light pollution. It began with a promising flurry of mallet instruments but soon entered John Williams territory. I almost expected the credits to roll after the buildup to the final chord. Another so-so outing for the TSO NextGen Composer program.

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Arthur Kaptainis
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