The Toronto Symphony Orchestra made their Maison Symphonique debut tonight with a very apt program, which was eloquently introduced by Maestro Oundjian at first in eloquent French, but then with the aid of translations by the associate concertmaster. He explained a little about both 20th-century works on the program, Montréal native Pierre Mercure’s Tryptique and Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 12. The maestro and his translator also made sure to commend the impressive acoustics of the still-new Maison Symphonique, commenting: “nous sommes très contents de jouer ici; la salle est magnifique!”

Toronto Symphony Orchestra with Peter Oundjian © John Loper
Toronto Symphony Orchestra with Peter Oundjian
© John Loper

It was a very nice gesture by the TSO to open the concert with a piece by a Québec composer. Pierre Mercure was breaking ground as an original new voice when he was tragically killed in a traffic accident before his 39th birthday. Had he lived longer, he would no doubt have continued to develop the impressive style we witnessed tonight. His late wife looked on from the corbeille as the work began hauntingly in the low strings. Maestro Oundjian had explained that the work comprises a fierce marcato section bookended by two adagios which are mirrors of each other. In fact, the clarity of form was one of the most striking attributes of this work, and rare in the North American composers of the 20th century. It was one of the most effective and coherent Canadian compositions I have heard, with clear musical intentions, often anchored harmonically, though not lacking a brave modernistic voice. The performance by the TSO was exemplary.

Beethoven’s Triple Concerto was next on the program – a curious work and a unique instrumentation in Beethoven’s output. An all-Canadian team of soloists joined Mr Oundjian’s TSO for the performance. After an orchestral introduction, the first solo instrument to play was the cello, as it would be in all the movements. Cellist Shauna Rolston, bespectacled and clad in a close-fitting black dress, began to play the simple theme with crystal-clear intonation (as it would be throughout the performance) and a vivid, singing tone. Her musical lines at all times breathed as if the sound were a living thing. At times the vibrato was quite a lot wider than that of her colleagues and the orchestra, but she quickly adjusted when playing duets or tuttis. Jonathan Crow, the newly appointed concertmaster of the TSO, was second to join the conversation. Strikingly tall and sharply dressed, he pulled each sound from his strings with the utmost care and thought, producing a brilliant, bright tone which soared above the orchestral texture. André Laplante was the last to enter, displaying an academic profile with a wizened crop of white hair, and though his playing was mature and refined, the piano is seldom utilized in the work, which makes one wonder what its purpose is musically. The complex interplay of rhythm, athletic bowing and rubato makes this an incredibly hard work to perform, and also to conduct. Mr Oundjian, having been a violinist in the Tokyo Quartet, is no novice at making chamber music. He was an immensely intelligent accompanist, with a keen ear for balance, which he showed in his gestures.

The second half of the concert was dedicated to Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 12, and finally the TSO was allowed to display all of their unfettered prowess. The work is heavily laden with subtext, as are most of this composer’s compositions, and written as a tribute to the memory of Lenin, the leader of the October Revolution. It was of course written after Stalin’s death, though only three years after the nullification of the infamous Zhdanov decree which had condemned Shostakovich and his art. It would be the last symphony to be premièred by Yevgeny Mravinsky, who would later refuse to conduct his Thirteenth.

It is quite surprising to imagine a symphony being written in the 1960s, a time during which the symphonic medium had long been considered dead – not to mention a symphony with a key! Despite his attachment to old forms, Shostakovich was no stranger to innovation.

The TSO was in full form for this work. I wasn’t aware that their brass section was positively world-class. The clarity and power of these players was some of the most impressive playing I have heard in Canada. The trumpets alone continually inspired torrents of chills, crowning the massive orchestral sonority with a robust, wall-shaking deluge of sound. In fact, the TSO produced the loudest sound I have heard yet in the Maison Symphonique, yet managed to balance it perfectly. The bassoons were equally as impressive, both as a section and the principal alone. There was also fine playing from the snare drum, principal trombone and the clarinets. Peter Oundjian matched the prowess of his players equally on the podium. Though grey of hair, he had the energy and vigor of a 25-year-old, and scarcely seemed out of breath after the symphony, which has no pauses between movements.

Mr Oundjian and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra honored the city of Montréal with their fine programming and first-class performance, and would be more than welcome as future guests.

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