In a global age where the concept of “local sound” is increasingly rare, we may find ourselves interrogating the value of the multi-million dollar world tours regularly undertaken by many top orchestras. Surely when 80-odd musicians pack up their gear and travel across a country or ocean, the goal is to bring their unique, perhaps novel, interpretations and ideas to new audiences. On Tuesday night, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra under Peter Oundjian performed at Montreal’s Maison Symphonique as part of their eastern Canada tour in a well-executed and altogether comfortable programme which nonetheless failed, from a curatorial point of view, to challenge any notion of orchestral status-quo: a short modern première (not too avant garde) placed benignly in the opening slot, followed by a concerto, then a late Romantic warhorse occupying the second half. Beautifully, even passionately played, but a bit disheartening considering the critical furore the centrepiece of this programme - Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben - caused on the occasion of its première in the waning days of the 19th century: a veritable challenge to and for critics and audience alike. Today we delight in the familiarity of the great favourites, but often at the expense of the novelty, controversy and challenge that could otherwise be the stuff of a great orchestral tour.

Peter Oundjian © Sian Richards
Peter Oundjian
© Sian Richards

Canadian composer Vivian Fung was on hand in the audience for the Canadian première of Aqua (2012). Commissioned by the Chicago Sinfonietta as part of a series inspired by iconic structures in that city, this brief textural piece featured an undulating musical architecture through the use of tremolos and a constantly swelling dynamic scheme. Standard techniques such as full orchestral downward glissandi (a vertiginous effect I feel I’ve heard a lot lately) contributed to a surface interest. Oundjian was fully engaged and led through the ups and downs with authority and conviction. Some extended instrumental techniques at the very end, including bowed percussion, seemed poised to open up the sound palette, but the work ended too soon for such development.

Richard Goode was the soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 17 in G major, K.453. Considering his masterful recordings of the complete Beethoven sonatas - practically a reference amongst pianists - it was no surprise that his performance exhibited a level of clarity, nuance and tonal variety which was inspiring and totally engaging. Unfortunately, his delicately shaded passagework was invariably lost in the orchestral sound and could have been brought up a few notches to accommodate the concerto context (the orchestra didn’t seem to be playing too loudly) and the size of the hall. Because of this imbalance, and despite the attentive and collaborative role admirably assumed by Oundjian, the most beautiful moments came when Goode had the chance to play unfettered by the orchestra. The second movement was pure poetry, capturing fleeting moments of tragedy within a long and languid melodic line and supported just enough by the heartbeat of orchestral chords.

Strauss’ autobiographical tone poem Ein Heldenleben was everything you might hope for in a virtuoso orchestral performance. Bombast and excess abound in this epically rambling score. Maligned in its day for its self-importance and hubris, we tend now to look on it as a titillating curiosity from an age of the ascendence of the Romantic subject. Oundjian dived into the music with gusto, and the TSO responded in kind. A slippery entrance from the horns (there are eight horns!) was soon forgotten as the upward-striving hero’s leitmotif took on the bracing character of a true Romantic hero. The chattering woodwinds and “pedantic” tubas in the “Hero’s Adversaries” section were effectively humorous and pervasive throughout the entire work. Periodically, the flow of music was interrupted by a blockiness caused by the sheer volume of leitmotivic interjections, but this smoothed as the piece continued. Concertmaster Jonathan Crow’s exquisite extended violin solo in “The Hero’s Companion” is perhaps reason enough for the TSO to keep playing this piece in concert. Crow’s virtuosity is intense, and he conveys a sense of barely repressed energy like few others can. The TSO is certainly fortunate to have such a player leading the strings. After the epic battle music of “The Hero’s Deeds of War” the ensuing two sections can sometimes seem long and overly drawn out. Luckily Oundjian ensured that the pacing never flagged while still managing to linger on the poignancy of successive strings of harmonic irresolutions and lusciously interwoven melodic lines.

Strauss may have claimed to be “no hero,” but as might have been expected, his music stole the show, having the regrettable effect of dwarfing the Mozart and all but obliterating the Fung. Perhaps a shifting of balance is in order, with more emphasis on risk-taking departures from the expected - especially when orchestras tour.