JWR Articles: Live Event - Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Conductor: Peter Oundjian) - November 14, 2008

Toronto Symphony Orchestra

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In search of inner tension

Shifting gears from the singular joy of Tafelmusik Orchestra (cross-reference below) to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on consecutive evenings is one of the delights of attending live performances. On the surface, there is seemingly little commonality between Mozart’s The Abduction From the Seraglio and a program of full-orchestra English music. But, like the magnificent art laid out before us on both occasions, the link is the recreative skills required to unlock the subliminal truth that has been painstakingly etched into the timeless creations.

Host Bill Richardson (CBC Radio was on hand to record the proceedings for future broadcasts) summed up this notion succinctly as he reminded the live and future audience that hearing music written during other epochs can only reinforce “the certainty that we are part of a continuum”—no matter what the price of oil.

Sadly, from the opening measures of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes (where it took three tries before the brass could fathom the conducting gestures and enter together), it was clear that the night ahead would be long on glorious sound and frustratingly short on inner tension.

Conductor Peter Oundjian employs a technique that makes razor-sharp ensemble and carefully crafted legato virtually impossible. The right hand wields a baton that appears to be at odds with the wrist, forearm, arched baby finger and the pulse. For many maestros, their “stick” is treated as an extension of the index finger and used to provide clarity and precision to the back stands. Oundjian might well be advised to forego the implement and just use his hands—the improvement in unanimity of attack could be considerable.

As for the left, its main purposes are to sculpt, cue and cajole—adding layers of meaning to the sound while the beat goes on in the opposite limb. Curiously, Oundjian is frequently all fingers and no pull—failing to draw more than “good enough” tone out of his extremely capable band like, well, a violinist does with bow pressure and vibrato.

Finally, leaving his head in the score at least 25% of the time, necessarily, ruins the chance for a real connection between the composer’s intention, the conductor’s realization and the players’ rendering. Consequently, the ultimate leadership is often in doubt, leaving the musicians to their own devices (frequently more than enough to at least “get through”) but also robbing the music of its drama, subtlety and shape. Standing on the podium and watching a diminuendo is nothing compared to controlling it before our very ears and eyes then reaching a truly magnificent niente as one.

Harsh commentary indeed. Yet, the preceding lines are written with love for the art. The orchestra, coupled with the obvious sincerity from Oundjian that his heart is passionately in the right place—if only his body could more convincingly convey that passion—might rekindle its glory days when Karl Ančerl (who unforgettably advised me during a conducting lesson “Jim, forget these [the hands and baton]—find the music!] unravelled the mysteries of the world’s finest symphonists in breathtaking fashion.

Let’s drill down a bit.

“Dawn” had much sheen but lacked an arch. “Sunday Morning” burbled along with verve despite some untidy and brittle lines from the winds and pizzicato strings. Breathing with the band will soon raise “Moonlight” into the realm of organic greatness. Notable contributions from Fraser Jackson (contrabassoon) and David Kent (tympani) in “Storm” only added to its best-of-the-bunch impression.

Violinist Christian Tetzlaff burned his way through Mark-Anthony Turnage’s co-commission that fell victim to being more frantic than fun (elements of both are most certainly contained in this orchestration tour de force) as Oundjian couldn’t keep pace, labouring rather than relaxing into the “Mambo’s” pulsating rhythms. In “Blues” Tetzlaff soared through the far-reaching soundscape with only a few extra-dark pitches in the stratosphere. The cadenza—with respectfuls nod to Stravinsky and Mendelssohn—managed the twin challenges of desperate energy and thoughtful lyricism with aplomb. The “Tarantella” scurried about the stage, but was never caught, having to settle on this occasion for a reading instead of a performance.

In many ways, the brooding Vaughan Williams symphony provided the finest moments of the concert. The strings dug deep, bathing the hall with a marvellously firm—transparent when required—bed of tone for the woodwinds and brass to comment upon or punctuate as required. Special kudos for the English horn (Cary Ebli) lines of the “Romanza” and—once a couple of early baubles (somewhat related to the invitation to begin) had passed—the stellar work from French hornist Neil Deland.

Incredibly, the final measure—as the pain, passion and portent for hope completed its journey—revealed just how good Oundjian could become. Rather than stand by, his physique became the model for the adieu and the room listened more attentively than ever before.

Maddeningly, that beautiful finish was spoiled for reasons only known to management and Oundjian. A totally out-of-place encore (where none was demanded) from Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra immediately washed away whatever blissful feelings and images had just gone before.

Historical perspective

London Philharmonic Orchestra
EMI Records, CDC 7 472142
Three and one-half stars

In 1970, Sir Adrian Boult recorded the Vaughan Williams Symphony. This performance is notable for many impassioned climaxes and fine brass; the distinctively reedy oboes may grate on some ears. Between the thrilling “arrivals,” there are a few routine moments where Boult seems to have lost his enthusiasm, but that can be forgiven when he purposely allows the music to slip marvellously into stunning silence. Similar to the TSO, the ensemble teeters on untidiness whose source can be traced back to the podium.

A “Pastoral” Symphony (with the New Philharmonia Orchestra) completes the program. JWR

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Conductor - Peter Oundjian
English horn - Cary Ebli
Contra bassoon - Fraser Jackson
French horn - Neil Deland
Tympani - David Kent
"Four Sea Interludes" from Peter Grimes Dawn: Lento e tranquillo Sunday morning: Allegro spiritoso Moonlight: Andante comdo e rubato Storm: Presto con fuoco - Benjamin Britten
Mambo, Blues and Tarantella Loud and declamatory Very lyrical and bluesy Wound Up - Mark-Anthony Turnage
Symphony No. 5 in D Major - Ralph Vaughan Williams
Concerto for Orchestra Intermezzo interrotto - Béla Bartók
Further information, future screening/performance/exhibition dates,
purchase information, production sponsors:
City of Toronto Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership Corporation Toronto Symphony Orchestra
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