The latest (Afterworks) program presented by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra was a musical tour de force but decidedly weak on the pedagogical side.
Veteran broadcaster/host Tom Allen did his level best providing background information and insights to the three works at hand, but very few of his comments (including the entirely self-serving “We’re [the orchestra] Toronto’s most winning team”) made the performances which followed any richer or better understood—surely that is/was the domain of astute programme-note writers.
Most maddening of all was the lengthy introduction to the world première of Hilario Durán’s Concerto for Latin Jazz Trio and Orchestra, “Sinfonia Afrocubana.” Since any piece of music can only be premièred once (and with collective silent expectation before the first notes are heard), providing the audience with a “best of” survey of colours and themes truly robed the “aha!” for thoughtful listeners’ first experience of the music proper. (Who could imagine one of Beethoven’s colleagues or patrons providing a musical road map prior to the first performance of any of his symphonies?)
To make matters even less attractive, it became clear that not all of the cues were initially unanimous between the conductor, soloists and orchestra. Hopefully, chatty formats such as this might be re-thought—especially for first hearings of repertoire, or—as many other orchestras do—make the chat an optional event prior to the downbeat so that patrons can decide for themselves just how much extra information they require to fully appreciate the repertoire to come.
Fortunately, once the music began, Allen’s comments immediately faded to black even as Durán’s score burned into consciousness.
Fuelled by explosive tympani, the first movement ignites with a call to art that is at times bold, brash, exuberant and forward leaning. There is a remarkably collective looseness to the writing and the performance thanks, of course, to Durán’s unerring sense of rhythm and line, but also to guest conductor Roberto Minczuk (cross reference below). It’s hard to imagine a better advocate for this concerto than then Brazilian-born maestro who inspired his charges to seize the moment with the trio and dig deep into the fun, drama, textures and moods that fill virtually every bar.
An early highlight was bassist Roberto Occhipinti’s solo turn during the contrasting “relaxo” section on the heels of the opening pyrotechnics, soon followed by Yao Guang Zhai’s clarinet line that fit like the proverbial glove. After a heavenly trip by the gossamer strings setting up still more ebb and flow, Mark Kelso’s drumming contributions—particularly the simmering brushes work—could be readily heard and felt. The movement wrapped with an intriguing question mark, answered in short order by all that remained.
At some point down the road, it’s not hard to imagine a cinematic treatment of the second frame. It’s a riot of tempi and tones, featuring sizzling piano interventions from the composer, singing violins (such a treat when all agree on pitch and bowing), punctuating brass, crying French horns and another exquisite solo from Occhipinti. The only blemish was a somewhat “covered” English horn intervention that was more seen than savoured. (Indeed, with such natural acoustics in Roy Thompson, the decision to mic the trio—particularly the piano—produced more problems than improvements to the combined mix.)
Still, the overall, marvellously impassioned effect made this movement the absolute core of the work.
In the finale, the jazz heated up considerably as the trio flew through their parts with compelling abandon, daring the orchestra to keep up. Minczuk saw to it that there were far more hits than misses.
It’s a considerable accomplishment for Durán to compose a score for such large forces when most of his performing life centres around much smaller ensembles. Not surprisingly, many of the best moments came from the trio doing what comes naturally. Nonetheless, the unmistakeable feeling of love for the art and marvel at the palette of colours available permeate “Sinfonia Afrocubana” from stem to stern. Almost greedily, Allen concluded his remarks by saying that despite its melting pot of musical origins this music was “ours” (“Canada’s”). Pshaw: it belongs to the world and all of those who will be lucky enough to hear it. On to Calgary, Havana, Rio de Janeiro and beyond!
Symphonic Dances from West Side Story which followed with its truly magnificent orchestration (including finger snaps and “chorus” exclamations) was given a splendid reading notable for instrumental excellence from the solo flute, French horn and vibraphone. More’s the pity that the over-enthusiasm of the audience robbed the final “Somewhere” of its usual poignancy. (Note to Allen: Most would point to South Pacific as the first American musical to discuss racism—~8 years before West Side Story.)
The festivities finished up with a scintillating performance of Alberto Ginastera’s “Final Dance” (“Malambo”) from Estancia. Once again Minczuk lit the fire and filled the room with a few heady minutes of passion, heat and love. JWR