In the second week of their 2013/14 season, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Peter Oundjian, presented three major works, beginning with two which were definitely not the same-old, same-old repertoire. The event positioned two English pieces as a stark contrast to the Russian one in the second half.

Itzhak Perlman © Lisa Marie Mazzucco
Itzhak Perlman
© Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Benjamin Britten never completed his clarinet concerto. But in 2007, this piece, entitled Movements for a Clarinet Concerto, was constructed by Colin Matthews, chair of the Britten Estate. He drew on three unfinished pieces by the composer in order to make a kind of completion of a concerto whose first movement was sketched in 1942. Perhaps this is why the piece appears to lack in cohesiveness, and unfolds in a rather constricted manner. The soloist for this Canadian première was Joaquin Valdepeñas. This notable musician performed with playful ease; his tone was confident, and he was able to achieve a nice balance with the orchestra. It was, though, a somewhat shaky start, with the first movement not leaving the strongest impression. The third movement was the most satisfactory in terms of feeling and energy. The orchestra seemed to finally find their footing and began to play with the gusto fitting for a finale. It seems that the underlying rhythm of the last movement awakened the players. However, even with the driven finale and Valdepeñas’ interpretation, this concerto did not quite communicate. Despite the material being contemporary to strong works by Britten such as Peter Grimes, this piece was not so engaging.

Next, the audience was introduced to the Symphony no. 1 in B flat minor by William Walton, another English composer. It began in an incredibly boisterous fashion that was almost intimidating. Peter Oundjian fearlessly led the orchestra through the first movement, which was full of drama. Dark energy was let loose in the concert hall, making the audience hold their breath – this opening movement was, truly, a beast. However, it felt like the players quickly exhausted themselves with this high-voltage music, resulting in much less effective second and third movements. This piece was written during an unhappy love affair between the composer and Baroness Imma Doernberg, and just like that relationship, these two movements found themselves sinking. The final movement did not act as relief either; the orchestra continued to execute passages with unstable harmonies, overwhelming tempi and extremely loud dynamics. The brass sections was absolutely deafening, brutally overpowering the rest of the orchestra and even the additional percussion. The work is reminiscent of Sibelius at times. But was Walton as in control of this composition as Sibelius was of his symphonies? The audience had different reactions to this piece; some leapt to their feet, while others walked out slowly in utter puzzlement.

After the intermission, the TSO presented the beloved Violin Concerto in D major by Tchaikovsky. This piece was the opposite of the previous two in so many ways. It did not torture – it pleased the ear. This concerto is known to be one of the most technically difficult scores for violin, drawing harsh criticism from Eduard Hanslick when it was premièred. Today, it is simply impossible to imagine why it received such negative response at first. Itzhak Perlman on solo violin was a reigning master this evening. From the very opening, he took complete control of the orchestra, even leading the conductor. Perlman spoke directly to the audience; his whole life’s journey was laid out in front of us, brutally honest. He reveled in the soulful notes. He tore through the cadenzas in the most effortless manner. He made this concert a success. This last piece was what the audience responded to the most. Its themes were likely what they replayed in their minds on their journey back home.

This was a concert of contrasts. Oundjian was brave enough to make unusual programme choices in the first half. Despite the fact that the first two works were quite complementary in their pairing, they failed to communicate. However, the second half of the evening soared with elegance. The audience realized once again the reason that the Tchaikovsky concerto has been cemented in the repertoire.