Review by David Richards
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented a star-studded line-up of world-class performers last evening at Roy Thomson Hall. Guest conductor Thomas Søndergård and pianist Francesco Piemontesi elevated a program that brought out the virtuosity, versatility and range of orchestral colours of Canada’s leading symphony orchestra. The program began with Kati Agócs’ Perpetual Summer. Agócs describes herself as a Canadian/American/Hungarian composer. She introduced her Perpetual Summer as a musical commentary on the apocalyptic effects of global warming, using a huge battery of percussion, complete with three gongs, a giant mallet, and a box-like drum.
It produced an array of sound montages to great effect. Agócs borrowed from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (Summer) using an amplified sextet of strings and harpsichord, distorting the Vivaldi to suit her purpose. Her gripping work was an ideal choice as an overture for the evening’s program.
Piemontesi was up next with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58. The opening sequence of solo piano chords built ever so gently to set the tone. Every note was unblemished and placed carefully and purposefully. As the work played out, it was clear that we were listening to one of the great pianists of this generation. Piemontesi, from Switzerland, honed his craft under Alfred Brendel. He is new to Toronto, but is a well-polished artist near the top of the piano world. He has been performing and recording with major orchestras worldwide. Last night, his playing offered all of Beethoven’s drama with tonal beauty and a technical ease.
The Danish conductor Thomas Søndergård conducted in a way that achieved a marvellous balance between piano and orchestra. Søndergård is the brilliant Principal Conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (BBCNOW) and also Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO).
The second half of the program featured Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 39. This masterpiece by the great Finnish composer combines the best of Russian romantic orchestration and melodic magic, with Sibelius’ distinctive Nordic character. Like the Beethoven, it opened with a haunting solo instrument, this time the clarinet beautifully played by Yao Guang Zhai. From there, the instruments were often paired and pitted against one another resulting in wonderful contrasts of texture and colour. The brilliant work of the brass section, and the punctuation of the timpani and cymbals, was stunning. The soaring melodic writing and dramatic outbursts used the full range of the orchestra – a brilliant performance.
The Toronto Symphony has been going to great lengths to reach out to its audience and diffuse the mystery of the music in many innovative ways. Last night’s program was no exception. Informative introductions by Associate Principal Violist, Theresa Rudolph, guest conductor Søndergård and composer Agócs connected with the audience. All this effort might have come to naught had the orchestra and program been less than superb. But the music was sublime. Three works, each written a century apart provided a challenging and diverse program that let one easily forget the opening night ball game going on a few blocks away.
The TSO season continues this month with pianist Angela Hewitt joining the orchestra April 13-16, and the great Mahler Symphony No. 1 on April 28th and 30th.