Despite its share of big-name music directors, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra struggled for decades with the perception that it was a provincial ensemble. That assessment was probably unfair then, and it certainly is now. As related in a recent NYT story, the orchestra has been revitalized by Peter Oundjian, longtime violinist with the Tokyo String Quartet who took over as music director in 2004, and president Andrew Shaw; they’ve embarked on some intriguing creative initiatives which have sparked real excitement in the community. (For example, they’ve jumped on the house record label bandwagon, and appear to be doing it right.)
Of course, what really counts is the music-making, so how’s the TSO sounding these days? Marvelous. The various sections blend beautifully while still retaining an incisive timbre; the brass aren’t afraid to blaze out when needed; the strings have a luster and brightness that cuts through thick textures. Most impressively, there’s a tightness to the ensemble playing. Many orchestras come to grief in the faster passages of the Britten and Vaughan Williams pieces, even in studio recordings, but these posed no problems for the TSO.
The orchestra’s concert in Carnegie last weekend started with a fine rendition of the Four Sea Interludes from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. The trumpets were splendid in Sunday Morning, and the whole orchestra delivered an energetic and volatile performance. I wanted more from the snarling trombones in the Storm (here at 0:58), which turn a crescendo into a nearly unbearable onslaught of building tension (the composer and Eduard van Beinum are incomparable here, not least because they slow the tempo down a bit, and Oundjian didn’t). Perhaps the orchestra didn’t have the sheer weight of sound or sharply defined timbres boasted by the world’s finest ensembles. But justice was done to this wonderful music.
Itzhak Perlman followed with a performance of Max Bruch’s first violin concerto. Perlman got a standing ovation as he made his way onstage, before he had even played a note. No matter how he played, the audience was going to love it. I wasn’t convinced. The Bruch concerto is a warhorse, and it’s also not as technically difficult as (say) the Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev concertos. So there must be a temptation to treat a performance of it as routine, and I got that sense here. Perlman dispatched all the quick runs with such effortless rapidity that they seemed like non-events, and savored only the most obviously lyrical phrases. Throughout he played with that trademark bright, full tone that has awed violinists for decades. There were a few moments of slight imperfection–intonation a couple of times in leaps to the upper register of the E string, or tone in passages of intense vibrato as the bow neared the frog–but these were perceptible only in contrast to the supreme technical standard Perlman himself set for all violinists. Nevertheless, it all seemed a little too normal, a little too tame.
Strangely, the second half opened with something like an overture, a five-minute moto perpetuuo by Canadian composer John Estacio called Frenergy (frenetic+energy). After it was over, I turned to Amanda and said, “John Williams?” She replied, “Sounds like the part when the hero climbs in a hot-air balloon and escapes the bad guys.” I suspect this wasn’t representative of Estacio’s work, so it’s probably not fair to say anything more.
Then came the real highlight of the program, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony. Oundjian and the TSO kicked off the piece with a very quick tempo, yet did not stint the violence and brashness necessary for the first movement. These fast tempos raise an interesting issue, for the composer was even faster. RVW’s recording has a uniquely crazed intensity, because he constantly shifts the tempo—he leans on heavy, long accented chords, but he almost rushes rapid figures. I haven’t heard anyone else take this approach; most conductors, starting with those who worked most closely with RVW (Boult and Barbirolli–fans of the latter should take note of that historic recording) take slower tempos to create more weight and power. I wonder if Oundjian has heard the composer’s recording.
Oundjian and the TSO were almost matter-of-fact as they began the second movement, but they gradually and organically tightened the tension toward to the movement’s climax. The horns roared and bellowed in the scherzo, as they should, and the dangerously complex rhythms were tight and explosive. But the opening of the fourth movement was less intense; Oundjian referred to this passage as “jazzy,” a description I’ve never heard, and the performance was playful rather than vehement. The vehemence returned in the fugal epilogue, a passage of incredible accumulating force, culminating in a bare, naked F which Oundjian dubbed a “death blow.”
Oundjian’s glosses on the piece came in a spoken introduction, delivered via microphone; these speeches have been hallmarks of his tenure in Toronto. He started out with a quip–he felt like apologizing in advance for listeners who might expect something like the Fantasia on Greensleeves–and spent most of his few minutes discussing the interpretive conundrum posed by the Fourth Symphony. The work was written in 1934, and some see in it a response to the emergence of fascism, but the composer strongly denied any such meaning. Like most musicians and listeners, Oundjian was skeptical of that disclaimer. (Another explanation is the composer’s fiery temper, and the director Tony Palmer, in his revelatory documentary on RVW O Thou Transcendent, suggests a specific spark: Vaughan Williams’ deteriorating marriage to Adeline Fisher. It’s also worth noting that Holst, the composer’s closest friend, died that year.) I hope that Oundjian’s statements are received as ways into the music rather than as ex cathedra pronouncements, since these extra-musical associations are all skating on thin ice. Oundjian did move on to a quick preview of the movements which was probably helpful to listeners, and best of all conveyed his enthusiasm for this too-rarely-performed piece–an enthusiasm shared by the audience, to judge from the ovation.
Those who stuck around were treated to the most substantial encore I’ve ever heard at a concert: the Romanza (slow movement) of RVW’s Fifth Symphony. Oundjian took an unusually fast tempo, and I had the feeling that he made some cuts (I can’t be certain since I obviously didn’t have a score with me). In any event, the piece was shorter than usual. (Just looking at my shelves, the composer takes 10:13, Barbirolli 12:10, Handley 11:33, Previn/RCA 12:15, Boult/Decca 10:55, Boult/EMI 10:53, Haitink 13:29. Yes, I love this piece.)
I thought the relatively quick tempo paid some dividends; while we didn’t have the awestruck, rapt stillness that other performances deliver, the meandering melodic line became quasi-vocal, as if RVW were elaborating one of the folk melodies in which he found much of his inspiration. The performance flowed easily from section to section, much like the first movement. In a performance of the entire symphony I would want this third movement to be taken more slowly as a contrast to the first, but here this approach was effective.
Oundjian took to the microphone again to introduce the encore, and again focused on historical context. The Fifth was written in the midst of the Blitz, and apparently RVW once took a train from Waterloo Station twenty minutes before it was flattened by a Nazi bombing raid. So it was an answer to the nightmare possibly prefigured in the Fourth Symphony, an answer that tried to create an oasis of perfect beauty in the midst of death and destruction. (That’s how the work’s first audiences heard it.) Oundjian made a brief reference to RVW’s opera based on John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which he was struggling to finish at the time; the composer drew some material for the symphony from his sketches for the opera. In his documentary Tony Palmer suggests yet another context: RVW’s newfound happiness with Ursula Wood, whom he later married after Adeline’s death. Whatever; these associations are useful to help bring audiences closer to the work, but are ultimately not necessary, and perhaps as misleading as the libelous cows-looking-over-gates stereotype which still clings to RVW. Forget the stories and just listen:
Some quibbles aside, this was a magnificent experience. Shamefully neglected masterpieces in first-rate performances, presented by a conductor who knows how to communicate with his audiences and an orchestra of formidable technical powers–if only more concerts were like this.