Somewhat buried in the wintry depths of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s season, this unassuming midweek concert was marketed under the title, “Mozart’s Haffner Symphony”. What made it stand out however wasn’t the orchestra’s traversal of the Viennese master’s popular work, but its uncompromising focus on mid-20th and early 21st-century works by Benjamin Britten and Missy Mazzoli. 

Jeffrey Beecher
© Toronto Symphony

Under debuting British conductor Kerem Hasan, the TSO gave virtuosic accounts of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes (1945), based on themes from his operatic masterpiece Peter Grimes, as well as his lesser known Sinfonia da Requiem from 1940. Britten fashioned the Sea Interludes from the orchestral intermezzi that bridge the opera’s scenes. The TSO strings offered appropriately cold, glassy tone in the opening Dawn interlude, conjuring the crisp morning sea air, while the movement’s brass interjections emerged with impeccable ensemble blend. Hasan gave gorgeous shape to the emotionally-rich melodies associated with the opera’s female lead, Ellen Orford, that emerge first in the cellos, then in the violins. Sunday Morning was taken at a very slow, deliberate pace that almost threatened to derail any sense of forward momentum, but the final Storm movement was driven to a thrilling, roof-raising climax.

Britten had a deep relationship with his nation's musical ancestry, arranging songs by his Baroque predecessor Henry Purcell and orchestrating his own version of the 1728 ballad opera, The Beggar’s Opera. Whether intended or not, this provided a connection to the programme’s second work, Missy Mazzoli’s 2018 “concerto” for double bass and chamber string orchestra, Dark with Excessive Bright. The jiggering string motifs played by the accompanying strings could almost be a homage to Vivaldi, likewise Mazzoli’s virtuosic writing for the solo bass fiddle. 

This contemplative piece forefronted the TSO’s principal double bass, Jeffrey Beecher, who, when speaking from the stage after his performance, revealed he had learned the moody solo during the depths of the pandemic. Seldom does one hear the full range of this instrument (here, subtly amplified) so skilfully exploited as Beecher did, making its upper range sing sweetly. Solo turns tossed to Associate Concertmaster Mark Skazinetsky and Associate Principal bass Michael Chiarello amplified the overall effect, teasing the ear as it tried to locate exactly from where the melody was emerging.  

The concert’s titular work was delivered “big orchestra” style by Hasan and his forces. Mozart’s busy string writing in the opening Allegro con spirito emerged rich and smooth, and the same section had no trouble articulating the conductor's quick tempi in the concluding Presto. This was an enjoyable performance of a well-loved work that felt somewhat out of place in the context of the sound world that surrounded it elsewhere in the programme.

Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem has a curious commissioning history, originally requested by the Japanese government as a celebratory piece for the 2,600th anniversary of the birth of the Emperor Jimmu, founder of the reigning dynasty. It was ultimately rejected as too melancholic for the occasion. The work’s three movements are played without a break, and take their titles from three sections of the Catholic Requiem mass. 

The Sinfonia requires huge orchestral forces which Hasan unleashed to their full potential, achieving shiver-inducing climaxes in the opening Lacrymosa. Britten gives the strings a chilling, galloping “hounds of hell” rhythm in the middle Dies irae which the TSO violins delivered with scary intensity. Hasan coaxed heartrending tenderness in the sweeping melodies given to the strings in the final Requiem aeternam

This concert’s Mozart hook belied what was actually quite daring programming. Bravo to the TSO for offering such stimulating works on a cold Toronto night.