Four years ago, Maxim Vengerov suffered a shoulder injury that temporarily incapacitated him as a performing violinist. After four years of recuperation and in his one-night-only appearance in Toronto, Mr Vengerov took on a dual identity – as a violin soloist in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and then as a violinist–conductor in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

TSO RBC Resident Conductor Shalom Bard leads Maxim Vengerov and the TSO October 20 © John Loper
TSO RBC Resident Conductor Shalom Bard leads Maxim Vengerov and the TSO October 20
© John Loper

On the conducting podium with Mr Vengerov in the first half of the concert was Shalom Bard, the newly appointed resident conductor of the TSO. Trained as a clarinettist, Mr Bard brought insights to the orchestra as a woodwind player and as a conductor. This concert marked Mr Bard’s conducting debut with the TSO.

Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is arguably the most performed and recorded concerto of the violin repertory. The frequency of its performance in an orchestra’s program roster has reached as great as four (!) times in a given concert season. Meanwhile, performances of violin concerti written by other Russian composers such as Arensky or Glazunov shy from few to none. At any rate, Mr Vengerov has decided to tour this perennially popular concerto as part of his visits to Montreal and Toronto, and he played with solid bowing technique and panache.

His pianissimo was hair-raising, such as in the second-subject material of the first movement, and it appealed more effectively than the grandeur of his fortissimo. Despite some aggressive final touches in the closing passages of the outer movements, his tone projection was never dull or short of lustre. A good example was in the loud passages of double stops in the Finale, in which inexperienced violinists can end up transforming loudness into outright ugliness. Not the case here with Mr Vengerov; his voicing and richness in colours provided shades of acoustic joy. Under the direction of Mr Bard, the TSO was by and large responsive to signals coming from both the conductor and the soloist, with wonderful entries from the woodwinds among the highlights. For example, the principal flutist provided her lovingly lyrical entry at just the right volume to blend with Mr Vengerov’s gentle trills in the end of the first movement’s cadenza. Flair and nuanced playing from the joined forces of Vengerov and the orchestra left high expectations in the piece that followed.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, a symphonic suite with prominent solos from the violin and intimate moments for several orchestral section players, followed next on the program. On the podium with both his conducting baton and his Stradivarius, Mr Vengerov maintained busy acrobatics throughout the piece, by leading the orchestra and playing the violin solos. This composition is another favourite of the TSO, who last performed it in 2010. Unlike that performance two years ago, Vengerov the violinist effectively transported listeners into the far Arab lands of the distant past with a gripping narrative on a singing violin. In a piece like this, a seasoned violinist as Maxim Vengerov can demonstrate vividly how the violin is an effective narrative tool, much like how Gregor Piatigorsky used his cello to tell the story of Strauss’ Don Quixote. Similarly, Vengerov the conductor, who led the TSO without a score, was not only sensitive to orchestral nuances: he also maintained form in the overall piece. The form expanded appropriately as the music grew from one movement to the next; in the interim, Mr Vengerov kept close contact with his musicians as they lured the audience to the edge of their seats with seductive melodies.

Beautiful highlights from the TSO came from the lush strings of Heidi Van Hoesen Gorton on the harp, expansive mellow sounds from Joaquin Valdepeñas on the clarinet, and the highly engaged dialogues between Vengerov on his violin and bassoonist Michael Sweeney, whose rubato in the opening of the second movement (“The Tale of Prince Kalendar”) was most impressively executed. Even the brass players, particularly the trumpets, were on top and clean form throughout the evening’s performance. In a live rendition of this piece, there can be one of two outcomes: textural richness and a sense of spaciousness can provide a satisfying listening experience, or a too-clinical reading can end up less enjoyable. This Saturday night, we enjoyed the former fate; Mr Vengerov took flight with the TSO and delivered a highly narrative performance.

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