This week, a sort of Canadian artistic exchange is taking place. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra performed here in Montréal this past Saturday and, in turn, the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal will be visiting Toronto on 13 May. This exchange serves as an exciting opportunity for each community to hear the work of the other. Indeed, the TSO arrived with a heavy and promising program which included a piece by a young Toronto composer and the whopping magnum opus that is Bruckner’s Symphony no. 7. The challenges presented by this program, particularly the Bruckner, allowed the TSO to impress with its technical precision, ensemble cohesiveness and stamina.

Canadian composer Kevin Lau’s tone poem Treeship served as a well-suited introduction to the concert’s main fare, richly orchestrated and full of post-tonal expressivity. Opening with running ostinatos in the woodwinds, a driving melody emerged, supported by a massive sound from the brass. The piece had a fantastic, cinematic quality. Low timpani rumbles were evocative, bringing to mind the imagery of the great grey hull of a ship. Despite sweeping melodies and full, post-Romantic style orchestration, the orchestra’s approach was not sentimental, but rather precise and driving. Segments of material were brought to the foreground of the cacophonous whole, as though shifting shadows were revealing various layers of the work. Excellent orchestration and an energetic approach by the ensemble rendered this performance a great success.

Next on the program was Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, a Romantic work with a Classical polish. Soloist Augustin Hadelich approached the piece with refinement rather than an overtly sentimental interpretation, taking great care with his dynamics and phrasing. Hadelich maintained clear voicing throughout, especially through the octave passage of the second movement. It was clear that Hadelich had a penchant for the faster tempos, flying through rapid arpeggio figures with ease. He especially shone in the third movement, where a particularly fast pace did not hinder the precise articulation. Hadelich would lift his bow dramatically at the end of solo phrases, ushering in the commentary of the ensemble. While the orchestra adjusted to Hadelich’s tempi, it seemed at times that the orchestra pushed forward in order to keep up. All things considered, Hadelich’s performance captured the light character of the faster moments and the sophistication of the slower passages. Following the performance, he returned to the stage to perform Paganini’s Caprice no. 5 in A minor as an encore. This was a display of technical flash, agility and outright violin shredding.

Finally came the concert’s main course, Bruckner’s Symphony no. 7 in E major. This work served as an awe-inspiring display of the orchestra’s cohesiveness; shifts in tempo, dynamics and atmosphere flowed seamlessly as though the ensemble was a single organism. The shimmering violin opening had a mystical quality, seemingly emerging from nothing. This energy and blend supported the symphony’s well-known theme in the cellos. The first movement in particular displayed the range of the brass section, from a warm, blended tone to the massive sound of the fortissimo passages. The legato melody of the Wagner tubas in the second movement, said to be a lament for the composer’s ailing friend Richard Wagner, felt free and spontaneous. A slower interpretation of this movement allowed for time to articulate the long phrases through the great expanse of music. Waves of sound filled the hall, at times becoming almost overwhelmingly loud.  

Throughout the work, conductor Peter Oundjian remained refined and in control. Despite the great length, he didn’t even seem to break a sweat, directing with ease and calm. He could be seen basking in the sound of the work’s heights, clearly taking great joy in the performance while remaining in control. The orchestra, too, paced itself well over the course of the symphony. They remained highly energetic in the call and response of the third movement scherzo, as well as the light pizzicato opening of the fourth movement. The orchestra maintained great energy in the wide range of characters of this final movement, from the lightness of the opening to the grand tutti unisons midway through. Despite all that had come before, these statements were strong and defiant, a display of ensemble unity. This led the work to a brilliant conclusion full of excitement and wonder.

The TSO’s charged performance allowed our Montréal audience to experience an array of characters and atmospheres, from the lighter mood of the Mendelssohn to the dark, funereal depths and soaring heights of the Bruckner. Through all works, the orchestra’s technical precision and cohesive playing were highlights. Audiences can only hope to look forward to more of these exchanges in order to experience the range of musical interpretation across Canada.