Czech conductor Karel Ančerl was in the United States in August 1968 when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague. A survivor of Auschwitz during World War II, Ančerl decided not to risk his life again and instead of returning to his homeland, reluctantly decamped for Toronto, where he had already agreed to start the 1969/70 season as the new Chief Conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Over the next four years he recast the orchestra in the Central European tradition, an effort cut short by his untimely death in July 1973. But the mark he left was indelible, and a major reason why the Toronto Symphony ranks among the great North American orchestras today.

With the estimable Peter Oundjian on the podium, the orchestra came to Prague Spring this year to play a two-concert tribute to Ančerl. The first offered a stellar program: two Czech works and Brahmsʼ Concerto for violin in D major featuring one of the finest string players on the planet, Maxim Vengerov. The sense of anticipation entering Smetana Hall was palpable, and the orchestra delivered a performance that would have made Ančerl proud.

It opened with the Carnival Overture by Oskar Moravec, a Czech composer whose career in some ways mirrored Ančerlʼs. He was a promising young assistant conductor at the New German Theater (now the State Opera) in Prague when his family fled the Nazi occupation, and in 1940 resettled in Toronto. Moravec became a music professor at the University of Toronto whose work was played by major orchestras in North America and Europe, and soloists like Glenn Gould and Itzhak Perlman. The appeal of his music was clear in the Overture, a bright, whirling piece that Oundjian punctuated with high-spirited percussion perched prominently on a riser. There was a marked Czech flavor to the music, particularly in the warm sound of the strings and woodwinds.

Vengerov came onstage looking casual and relaxed in a gray suit and open-necked shirt, but there was nothing superficial about his performance. His concentration was intense and his playing virtuosic. The cadenza that concludes the first movement was like a showcase of everything that makes him a superstar – brilliant, seemingly effortless technique, imaginative phrasing, emotional content packed into every note and total command of difficult material. An encore of Bachʼs Sarabande showed a soulful, tender side that drew applause even from the orchestra. 

A muted start called to mind the shoulder injury that kept Vengerov from playing for nearly four years. Even with Oundjian keeping the orchestral volume low, his violin was occasionally lost in the sound of the first movement. But it was strong and clear in the solo passages and successive movements, and just the slightest hesitation before he launched into the cadenza suggested another explanation: Vengerov was subtly encouraging the audience to pay attention. Whether that was his intent or not, it worked, with the entire hall rapt by the start of the second movement. And when he and Oundjian finally walked offstage with their arms around each other, it was clear they had achieved exactly what they wanted.

The evening concluded with a rousing rendition of Dvořákʼs Symphony no. 7 in D minor, a personal favorite of Oundjianʼs. His enthusiasm for the piece was evident in the buoyant energy and dramatic dynamics of the sound, which rose to majestic heights and then dropped to small, carefully crafted details with superb control. The rich colors and melodic flow invoked the orchestraʼs Czech legacy, but the deep knowledge of the piece and New World burnish were Oundjianʼs own. 

The orchestra was generous with encores – a rambunctious version of Khachturianʼs Masquerade Waltz, followed by a solemn take on Elgarʼs Nimrod that blossomed into the grand dimensions that Oundjian favors. The more obvious move would have been to offer a Czech warhorse or two guaranteed to please a Prague audience. Give Oundjian credit for making cosmopolitan choices which showed the orchestra to be the proud bearer of a cherished musical tradition that has diversified over four decades but remains vital and strong.