A last-minute injury robbed the Toronto Symphony Orchestra of an appearance by Robert Spano this season (slipped discs are not to be taken lightly in the conducting profession). Fortunately, Carlos Miguel Prieto’s schedule permitted him to jump in on short notice, moving his TSO début ahead three days.
As can often happen when personnel calamities rear their musical heads, the planned repertoire is often adjusted (in some cases, the expected works are unknown or unloved by the parachuting artists). Here, the only “switch” was in performing the complete 1947 version of Petrouchka rather than the leave-‘em-with-a-bang concert variant.
Clearly, at least two of the three works were well-known to the Mexican maestro, yet the predominate feeling in the outer works was unease.
Each of the three movements which comprise Suite No. 2 from The Three-Cornered Hat improved as the performance progressed. “The Neighbour’s Dance” never really settled into its rhythmic or ensemble skin; “The Miller’s Dance” had much “snap” and “crackle” (and a splendid French horn solo) but only one “pop” (aptly demonstrating the adage: “saving the best for last [note]”); “Clenchiosity” could perhaps best describe “Final Dance”—a surfeit of beats fuelled a preponderance of edginess that might have caused the limbs of any dancer to seize up as well. With a baton technique that leaves too many choices for pulse precision and a left hand that most often is content to mirror the right, it’s extremely difficult for the talented musicians to add that extra bit of finesse and phrase that we know they are capable of when guided by more sensitive/experienced hands.
Even with the challenging score in plain sight (the de Falla “par coeur”), perhaps Stravinsky’s most colourful and varied ballet, suffered a similar fate. Yet, unlike Karl Ančerl, who famously brought along his scores to the stage just in case he felt the need to research a detail in mid-performance, Prieto clung to the printed dots like a life preserver, rather than letting the millions of detailed instructions be transformed into the galaxy of texture, hues and dynamics that overflow every page.
No worries; some splendid contributions from the first stands provided many wonderful moments (trumpet, flute, piano, tuba and the delightfully saucy contrabassoon punctuation), washing away the tentative transitions and a valiant attempt by the cymbals to fit in.
When violinist extraordinaire Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg took the stage with a reduced string complement (the winds, percussion and keyboards following along from the green room) and Prieto—who left both the podium and his baton off stage to cool down following the opening work—the music-making heated up to a boil—Astor Piazzolla’s (re-arranged from his usual ensemble for string orchestra by Leonid Desyatnikov) Seasons fully engaged the previously lack-lustre crowd and provided the finest music of the evening.
Salerno-Sonnenberg led with authority and dared her colleagues to keep up as the room was bathed with all manner of sensational slaps, slinky slides and superb slow sections where the energy from the tuttis was marvellously balanced by melodic lines that always knew where they were headed and an equally sensitive accompaniment that never failed to support. Special mention must be made of cellist Winona Zelenka’s solo interventions—especially in “Invierno,” that set the tone (along with a magnificent bed of melodramatic chords from the low strings), inspiring the soloist—quite literally—to exquisite heights, working through a section of rhythmic angst and accents before a true sense of “calmo” gradually led everyone (even after one of several Vivaldi Seasons quotes—in this instance the heady scales, which gave a marvellous air of fancy-free homage) until the delectable coda slipped away beautifully into the ether. Unforgettable at every turn. How curious that without his “stick” Prieto was able to relax with the music much more frequently, thrusting and parrying as required, producing a spectacular result with an artist of immense skill.
During the first half, a young couple beside me (she in sophisticated cocktail dress, he in short sleeves and short pants) initially gave hope that a new generation of concertgoers was getting the classical music “bug”—especially as this program was not a “favourite hits” collection.
Sadly, I was compelled to utter a couple of “shushes” while the more attractive of the two provided a running commentary to her beau as to what the rest of us could see and hear while the string band plucked and “scraped” to increase the colour spectrum in the Piazzolla. Some success there, but nothing could stop the incessant unscrew, drink, screw-back-on flow of water from an “allowed” receptacle. Not surprisingly, the trickling liquid was only required during the quietest moments. Unfortunately, no amount of grimacing could stop the flood of plastic punctuation.
At intermission, I turned to my thirsty companion and inquired if—at least—she might leave the cap off for the next half ….
Happily for me—my apologies to the next victims—they opted to escape my entreaties for silence by moving to some empty seats in the balcony opposite.
Has our perpetually noisy “outside” world made deaf the newcomers to the inner sanctum of our most universal art? How ironic it might be, if the success in luring a new audience into the world’s finest halls only drives those who prefer to hear their music as the composer imagined it back to their homes and the relative peace of digital entertainment centres. JWR