BWW Review: TORONTO SYMPHONY Season Launch Delivers Surprises
A night of surprises, enthusiastic artistry and brave new compositions graced the Roy Thomson Hall Tuesday night. The TORONTO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA opened its 2017-2018 season with a program that effortlessly mingled the classical with the contemporary. This is a year of big changes for the orchestra. For the past 14 years, music director Peter Oundjian has been successfully anchoring the TSO as one of the finest orchestras in the world. The audience could not have been more appreciative during the opening night of Oundjian's final season.
The evening's first surprise came in the form of a tasteful change in the program order, which facilitated a smooth transition from the fascinating, new compositions, to a second act of inherently classical pieces. Derek Charke's Élan, a Sesquie for Canada's 150th, featured a minimalist, cinematic soundscape, setting the tone for the first act. The concert's headliner followed with Academy Award winner Mychael Danna's glorious Suite from Life of Pi.
Beginning with a gentle lullaby, Suite from Life of Pi carries you through Pi's adventure - "Musically, we're going to begin where Pi was born," explained Danna. Carnatic singer, Bombay Jayashri, performed the chilling vocals to the beat of V. Selvaganesh's drum. His drum, deceptively simple-looking, created an endless variety of sounds, as his hands ricocheted off of it in the most complex variation of movements.
The serene lullaby opened up into a sweeping, melodic sequence encompassing the entire orchestra. Lush strings collided with a glowing brass section. Near the end of the 20-minute suite, Jayashri reprises the lullaby - the effect is emotionally transcendental. Many around me were moved to tears. In his music, Danna is able to capture a feeling - a specific memory - and force you relive it, enlisting all of your senses.
Violinist James Ehnes' presence was enough to keep everyone resolutely focused for the second half. Beginning with Ernest Chausson's Poéme for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 25 - Ehnes seduced us all with his earnest, romantic timbre. I've never quite heard the highest registers of a violin played with such a crystalline quality.
Ehne's second piece, Camille Saint-Saëns' Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 28, showed a different side of the artist. Ehne was aggressive, ferocious and impressively virtuosic. His commitment to the piece was meticulously focused and passionate. I was practically gasping for air by the time he had finished.
Speaking of virtuosos, another one of the night's surprises included an encore with Ehnes and Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki. Dedicated to Maestro Peter Oundjian, the two squeezed onto one piano bench for an adorable performance of a Slavonic dance by Dvorák.
Rounding off the program, in a display of exceptional might - the orchestra performed Stravinsky's (second) Suite from The Firebird. If you've never heard The Firebird, take a listen. I would recommend starting with the Infernal Dance - it is wonderfully menacing, introducing many of the compositional techniques that Stravinsky is famous for. Stravinsky gets a bad rap for composing music that is mechanical and difficult to listen to. The Firebird will change your perspective.
Led by Oundjian, the TSO shone in a suite of full, haunting and extremely challenging music. Validating Mychael Danna's remarks that the TSO is the "best orchestra he's ever worked with", the performance of Stravinsky's The Firebird was the jubilant beginning of a highly anticipated season. And if the length of the night's final applause indicated anything, it's that Toronto is happy to have the TSO back.
For more information on the TORONTO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA's 2017-2018 program, visit www.tso.ca
(photo credit: Jag Gundu)