Canada has been taking an active role to build concert programs featuring its own musical talents. One proponent organization of this is the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Led by a team of dedicated administrative individuals, volunteers and musicians, the TSO provides an indispensable platform to showcase our Canadian talents to the community at large. At Thursday evening’s concert, Toronto concertgoers had a triple bill experience – a visit from Conductor Laureate Sir Andrew Davis, an experience to hear one of Strauss’ greatest tone poems, Don Quixote, and more importantly, an opportunity to hear three Canada-based musical artists now on the performing circuit: young Canadian–Polish pianist Jan Lisiecki, and two TSO principals – cellist Joseph Johnson and violist Teng Li.

Jan Lisiecki © Mathias Bothor / Deutsche Grammophon
Jan Lisiecki
© Mathias Bothor / Deutsche Grammophon

To start off the evening before calling our soloists on stage, Maestro Davis led the TSO in a whirlwind reading of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream overture This is a much-loved piece in orchestral programs and demonstrates the writing genius of a prodigy, Felix Mendelssohn. This is one of Mendelssohn’s works from his early compositional career, from when he was just 17. In the words of the musicologist George Grove, writing in 1903, the overture is the “greatest marvel of early maturity that the world has ever seen in music”. How so? The musical genre of the concert overture, a piece written as an independent concert opener, was forward-looking at its time of conception. Mendelssohn’s creativity in the concert overture genre made this piece unlike any others that preceded it. Davis and the TSO gave this charming music a look into the world of fairy-tale and magic. They conjured this mood from Shakespeare’s brilliant play with clean passagework, notably from the fanfare episodes and closing chords of the woodwinds, and then from the brass tuba, who effectively mimicked the sounds of an ophicleide, a brass instrument included in the original scoring. The brass ensemble also offered large, round sounds in attempts to evoke the scene of threatening darkness, which helped give the overture a touch of mystery and dazzle.

Schumann’s ever-popular Piano Concerto in A minor, next on the program, featured Jan Lisiecki as the soloist. Since his debut with the TSO in January 2012, Mr Lisiecki (now age 17) has toured internationally to some of the most prestigious concert venues and festivals, including the Verbier Festival this summer. To much surprise, his reading of the Schumann concerto failed to capture the romantic and expansive qualities of this work (unlike his playing of Chopin). Very early on in the first movement, the mournful quality in the opening melodic phrase sounded bland in style, the result of a lack in voicing between the left- and right-hand melodies. The pianist was further challenged at his instrument to deliver that rhapsodic, sparkling top line as the score unfolded, until the music reached the solo cadenza. Here, Mr Lisiecki plunged wholeheartedly into the virtuosic passagework with promise and solidity. In the second movement, the challenges were as daunting as they were beautiful. These challenges required a full integration between the piano and orchestra; our soloist and the TSO came off slowly to arrive in full compromise, exploiting the beauty of this movement’s musical writing. The Finale exemplified Mr Lisiecki’s virtuosity to better effect. Overall, Davis and the TSO were complementing partners to the soloist’s reading throughout the work. Those interested in experiencing Mr Lisiecki’s virtuosic displays should be keen his Koerner Hall recital next March, devoted to the two sets of Chopin études.

Following intermission, Strauss’ Don Quixote delighted the audience, featuring two of the TSO’s own principals in the solo roles. Joseph Johnson, who joined the TSO in 2010, took on the role of the title character, with the assistance of his beautiful 1747 Juan Guillami cello. Equally poised at her instrument was Teng Li, who became the TSO’s principal violist in 2004, taking the role of Don Quixote’s horse Rosinante in several striking episodes. Interestingly, and unlike other Strauss tone poems, Don Quixote assumed a myriad of roles as a cello concerto, a theme and variations, and a narrative symphonic poem based on the novel by Miguel de Cervantes.

In this performance, Johnson gave a convincing reading of clarity and grandeur in his role as the Don, perhaps expectedly, as this is one of Johnson’s favourite pieces in the orchestral repertoire. Similarly, Li’s solos registered gracefully, particularly in her dialogues with Johnson. At the final segment of the work, Johnson gave a mature conception of the genuine tragic sentiment depicted both by Strauss and Cervantes. The two soloists gave a spacious and colourful narration, with the TSO under Maestro Davis supporting their colleagues in fine form of expressive phrasing, dynamic percussion and detailed phrasing.

****1