BWW Review: Seduced by the Music of Love at the TSO's BEST OF TCHAIKOVSKY
If love had a sound, it would take the form of the colourful melodies pervading the air during the TSO's BEST OF TCHAIKOVSKY. Led by guest conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, the TSO is showcasing a program of two Tchaikovsky favourites and one rare gem, especially for cellist Joseph Johnson. Wilson demonstrates exquisite leadership throughout the program, shaping the orchestra with sweeping dynamics and wringing an earnest, romantic sound out of a few of Tchaikovsky's most beautiful compositions.
Well suited to an evening of Tchaikovsky, Laura Pettigrew's Dòchas: a Sesquie for Canada's 150th opened the concert on December 5, 2017. Dòchas enveloped the Roy Thomson Hall, entrancing the audience immediately with a lavish, calming sound. It filled my feminist heart seeing a female-composed piece being conducted by a female conductor. What better way to celebrate our nation's sesquicentennial?
But this concert is mainly a celebration of Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky - and what better way to celebrate his legacy than by playing one of his most popular musical themes. The Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture takes the emotion of Shakespeare's beloved play and imagines it musically. Wilson opened the piece with a brisk tempo'd "Friar Laurence" theme, really digging into the bass of the lower strings and enhancing the distressing contemplation of destiny at the core of the piece.
Wilson is noticeably skilled at shaping dynamics. Her conducting had the orchestra pulsing - the effect on the listener is one that tugs at your emotions. When the famed love theme first arrives, it is played very strictly - collected and practically lacking passion. This is in preparation for the emotional onslaught when the orchestra reprises the theme, this time grandly fortissimo. Wilson was smiling brightly as the momentum started building. The masterpiece was masterfully performed by all - reinforcing the beauty in Tchaikovsky's work.
Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33 (original version) followed. The piece is virtually a tribute by Tchaikovsky to Mozart, a composer he idolized. Losing most of the brass and percussion, Variations on a Rococo Theme begins with a pleasant baroque-inspired sound, until the cellist starts to elaborate on the theme. And once cellist Joseph Johnson starts, he doesn't get a moment to rest until the piece ends. Johnson's attentive onsets and skill at creating a luscious legato line were the highlights of the piece, forgiving a few flubs that occurred during the ambitious work. I say ambitious because the performed original version of the piece includes the eighth variation, which is often eliminated due to its difficulty.
Following intermission, Tchaikovsky's epic Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64 took the stage. Tchaikovsky's obsession with fate factors prominently in this symphony - by the fourth movement, his relationship with fate evolves into a jubilant interpretation of providence. As you can tell, Tchaikovsky's 5th is wonderfully theatrical. You can't help but picture a deeply emotional work, maybe a ballet, accompanying the soulful themes that make appearances throughout the symphony.
The first theme, referred to as the "fate motto", is a menacing motif that repeatedly interrupts other musical sequences. Wilson initiates a very slow build at the beginning of the first movement, until the bouncing marching theme enters. Again, we see the power of her sweeping dynamics, which are very moving, as the orchestra approaches a passionate fortissimo, taking us into the second movement.
Described as anguished melancholy, the second movement includes memorable themes for horn and oboe. The two instrumental lines dance around each other in an intimate dialogue, the oboe seeming to lift the horn line out of desperation. I mentioned earlier that the lovers' theme from the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture may be one of Tchaikovsky's most popular motifs - but the horn theme in the second movement of his fifth symphony is arguably one of his most romantic.
Wilson caresses the orchestra through a waltz in the third movement, requiring precision to cleanly navigate the quick runs. Again, the mood darkens when interrupted by the fate theme before the symphony approaches enlightenment.
In the fourth movement, we are introduced to the newly transposed fate motto. Now in E Major, the theme transforms, becoming lively and triumphant. Wilson pulls bright, vicious fanfares out of the orchestra, the sound portraying the heavens as a model of strength - victorious over all. Tchaikovsky was highly criticized by reviewers for this movement, which they deemed over-the-top and wild. I think that's the point.
During an evening of some of Tchaikovsky's best, Keri-Lynn Wilson displays strength as an engaging leader, drawing sublime, arresting colours out of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. In the TSO's program, Tchaikovsky's introspection is musically seductive, giving weight to his place as one of our greatest Romantic-era composers.
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra's BEST OF TCHAIKOVSKY continues December 6 & 7 at 8pm at the Roy Thomson Hall.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit tso.ca
* Pettigrew's Dòchas was only performed at the December 5, 2017 concert
Main photo credit: Keri-Lynn Wilson and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, photo by Nick Wons