It was a year ago at the Jane Mallett Theatre when the 24-year-old French pianist Lise de la Salle made her Toronto debut in a solo recital of Debussy, Liszt and Ravel. That recital was a sensation and left lasting impression in the hearts of many Torontonians. Making her Toronto Symphony Orchestra debut with the Piano Concerto in G major by Maurice Ravel was a natural choice to echo Miss de la Salle’s prestigious lineage in the French piano school.

Lise de la Salle © Stéphane Gallois for Vanity Fair
Lise de la Salle
© Stéphane Gallois for Vanity Fair

But there was yet another reason to account for the memorable concert experience this Wednesday evening. Scottish conductor Douglas Boyd, who last led the TSO in Simon Holt’s A Table of Noises, returned to guest-conduct the orchestra. Mr Boyd currently serves as the Chief Conductor of the Orchester Musikkollegium Winterthur in Switzerland, and is known particularly amongst record collectors of Mahler’s music – but rather than playing works of Mahler, Mr Boyd and the TSO here selected a varied program that covered wide musical borders across Europe.

Opening the concert was Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture, an orchestral fanfare that immediately drew attention to Mr Boyd’s clear conducting stick technique. Meanwhile, his left hand massaged the orchestra, building crescendi and maintaining tensions within the orchestral sections by rising and lowering his palm like tai chi manoeuvres. A prominent English horn melody grew soothingly. Half way into the piece, the chirping TSO woodwinds, including a wonderful solo oboe, mimicked bird-like calls spread across a forest. Some might have yearned for more sheer frenzy from the strings in the latter of the overture, as the music built to a bright climax and resolved by supporting beds of percussion and brass calls. Mr Boyd managed clarity in the technical form and in the inner motifs of Berlioz’s writing.

Ravel wrote two piano concerti in the last decade of his life, with the Concerto in G major finished later. This is a popular concerto in Toronto, as many will still recall performances given by Frenchmen Louis Lortie and Jean-Yves Thibaudet. In fact, this concert was not the first occasion when our soloist and conductor shared the same stage together; last year, de la Salle and Boyd performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in a tour of Switzerland and Spain. Followers of their partnership naturally expected a close musical rapport; indeed, the dialogues between the pianist and the orchestra were engaging to hear and watch even to seasoned listeners of this work.

However, what seemed lacking prominently was a sense of proportions – balance in volume and weight between the orchestra and the soloist. Except in the opening passage of the second movement, a piano solo which Miss de la Salle played like a self-reflective prayer, the majority of her dialogues were covered by overpowering instrumental forces. In the sections that called for prominence from the pianist and accompanying support from the orchestra, Miss de la Salle was barely audible on the concert grand piano. At times, she was struggling to be heard. These limitations aside, the French pianist offered a freshness of interpretation that was ample to compensate. In the third movement, for example, Miss de la Salle was not only able to play sweetly on one hand, but was adept to play pungently with her other. There was a remarkable sense of freedom and rhythmic drive, which she maintained as the pillar of her musical pulse. In sum, Miss de la Salle’s performance showcased two prestigious qualities of her musical talent, as a painter and as a choreographer of the keyboard.

Sibelius’ Symphony no. 2 in D major is a work notoriously associated with the TSO. It was last heard as part of a complete cycle of Sibelius symphonies with Thomas Dausgaard conducting. Sibelius completed the piece in 1902. In the ensuing century, this work was a warhorse to such fabled conductors as Sir John Barbirolli, Leonard Bernstein, George Szell, and most notably Robert Kajanus, who made a pioneer recording. In this concert, Mr Boyd proved himself an effective communicator, one who convinced the TSO to sketch meadows and forests of Nordic landscapes from crafted bowing and articulations. There was an epic narrative in Boyd’s reading that stressed less the romantic qualities championed by Dausgaard and the TSO two years ago. In their own rights, each of the two TSO performances gave an enjoyable account of this very popular orchestral masterpiece. In Mr Boyd’s reading, the coherence and palette of orchestral colours came off brilliantly in the Finale; here, careful listeners will appreciate how the conductor used this movement to highlight Sibelius’ “victory through struggle” in music. A fine performance doesn’t get any better than this.

****1