No doubt many of the concert-goers in Toronto were attracted by Carmina burana, Carl Orff’s ever-popular large scale work; however, it is always interesting to discover what other works are paired with such a crowd-pleaser.  Orchestras have a duty not only to provide performances of the most popular works in the repertoire, but also to educate the public in introducing them to great repertoire which is often not as well known as it should be. In the first half of this concert we were treated to a performance of Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto no. 2 with soloist Nicola Benedetti. As conductor Peter Oundjian told us during the concert, this concerto was written before almost all of the most well known violin concertos of the 20th century. Through-composed as one single 20-minute movement, the Toronto Symphony and Benedetti gave it a beguiling performance.

Nicola Benedetti © Simon Fowler
Nicola Benedetti
© Simon Fowler

Many of the lyrical sections are built from an interval of a minor third with plenty of dialogue between orchestra and soloist. Benedetti is not a particularly showy violinist but one who is in command of her performance and totally at ease on stage. Her performance demonstrated both exciting virtuosity but also a sensitive, chamber music like intimacy with the orchestra on the other. She played with a good sense of rhythmic control and with subtle nuance, just holding the music back very slightly occasionally to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. Her cadenza was an impressive display of technical command especially through some difficult double-stopping.

In Wednesday night’s concert, the concerto was preceded by a new commission, a performance of Pierre Simard’s The Bastion, written as part of Canada’s 150th celebrations. This is a very short, two minute piece and Oundjian jokingly told the audience that he is always grateful when composers have to keep their compositions short! He also remarked that this piece had enough ideas in it that it could be spun out into a ten minute composition. Indeed, it did feel like that some of the varying ideas could have been expanded on, had the composer been given a different brief. Nevertheless, this was an exciting fanfare and proved to be an effective curtain raiser.

After a short first half, just twenty-two minutes of music, it was time for the season finale, Carl Orff’s Carmina burana, which saw the stage filled to capacity, including an array of percussion instruments, two pianos, three vocal soloists, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the Toronto Children’s Choir. Both choirs impressed, particularly with their diction, which was extremely effective in the quiet sections of the opening and closing choruses, where the consonants were almost spat out at us. Just occasionally though, I felt slightly underwhelmed by the full chorus sound as they were not always able to rise above the full orchestra. The ladies were particularly fine, singing with a rich sound. I was very impressed with the ease with which they negotiated their top Gs and Bs in Floret silva nobilis which appear from nowhere. The Toronto Children’s Choir too were on good form, singing their parts professionally and without music.

One of the movements I always look forward to is the tenor solo Cignus ustus cantat, but I was disappointed that the TSO had decided to use a countertenor (Daniel Taylor) instead, which was the wrong type of voice. His voice lacked impact at the beginning of each verse and the low parts were too low to produce enough tone. Both of the other two soloists (Aline Kutan, soprano and Phillip Addis, baritone) excelled in their roles. Addis’ voice was particularly resonant and he infused the role with much drama. Above the stave his sound was powerful and exciting. By contrast, Kutan’s voice was delicate and sweet; one of the highlights of the evening was her rendition of In trutina which was truly beautiful and seemed to make time stand still. The other highlight was Tempus es iocundum which features the chorus and the baritone soloist. It was pleasing that Oundjian took this at a restrained tempo, which allowed for plenty of humor and swagger. The orchestra provided an excellent accompaniment to the whole work; their tight ensemble and precision was particularly noticeable. This programme demanded much variety from the lyricism of the Szymanowski to the ebullience of the Orff and the TSO excelled in all facets, expertly and masterfully guided through by Oundjian.