This article appears in The WholeNote as part of our collaboration in the Emerging Arts Critics program.
I was especially excited to attend this year’s opening concert by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, a program of three works all written in the first half of the 20th century, with guest conductor Ludovic Morlot at the podium. Perhaps it was the sudden frigidity of the temperature outside (-16°C as I write!); or the two-thirds of orchestra chairs that sat empty during the first 20-minute piece on the program (which was without the entire string section); or perhaps the odd sight of a piano accordion onstage – but it wasn’t until halfway through the second piece that the evening delivered on its promise of electricity and excitement.
The program opened with Kurt Weill’s 1928 Suite from The Threepenny Opera, a condensation of an hour of music from the opera into eight movements spanning 20 minutes…though I would readily believe the opposite: that 20 minutes of music had somehow been made to feel an hour long. I remain unsure of the correlation between the bohemian Berliners of Weill’s opera and the Stravinsky Concerto in D Major for Violin that followed, or with the frosted nature-scenes described by the third work, Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2. The program would have benefited from better attention being paid to the sequence in which this Suite was used, beginning instead, for example, with the much more exciting piece by Stravinsky. Staring at a cob of empty chairs for the first 20 minutes of the evening was the kind of an underwhelming start that even a first-rate orchestra like the TSO might not recover from.
Thankfully, the eighth movement of the Suite came to a close and on came the soloist of the evening: violinist Leila Josefowicz! She struck an athletic stance and took the next 22 minutes to task with her performance of Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto. Aside from the technical difficulties inherent in this Neoclassical interpretation of the violin concerto (described by musicologist Thomas May as “the Baroque remade in Stravinsky’s image”), there is also the difficulty of commanding our attention despite the shortage of fancy cadenzas. Though that was no problem for Josefowicz, as she maintained a fiery stage presence with a dexterous combination of tip-toeing finesse and emphatic power. Each movement (except the fourth) opened with three near-identical notes in pizzicato which were designed by Stravinsky as a “passport” into the nervous staccato energy of each movement. Although more emphasis could have been placed on the first instance of this passport (in the Toccata), Josefowicz entered into the remaining three movements with an exclamatory urgency that personified the devilish connotations the composer associated with the instrument, and delivered a much-needed jolt to the evening’s slow start. By the roughest estimate I can attest to the hall feeling several degrees warmer after the last member of her standing ovation surrendered to the bright lights of intermission.
By the time Morlot dipped his baton for the opening notes that bloom out of the string section of Sibelius’ Symphony No.2 in D Major, Op. 43, the energy in the room was sufficiently warm and toasty enough to take the challenge forward into the furious blasts of ice and thunderous cataracts that mark the landscape of this gargantuan symphony, which was the highlight of the evening. The orchestra took just over 44 minutes to reach the end of the final movement (Leonard Bernstein and his Vienna Philharmonic, for example, took 53 minutes), but I’d much rather believe, as a matter of perception, and as a matter of the orchestra’s marathonian fitness and vivacity, that this performance was in fact shorter than the preceding violin concerto. Whereas the intensity of Josefowicz’s performance provided the spark to resuscitate an underwhelming first act, the orchestra’s performance in this third work was the roaring blaze needed to counterpoint the wintry settings described by this symphony, and the conditions just outside the concert hall.
One of the enduring qualities of Sibelius’ Second Symphony is how little it suffers from its protracted length. The introductory Allegretto is a fragmented compilation of musical subjects pieced together in the developing Tempo Andante movement, explosively dissected in the third movement and relieved in the fourth by a long and prostrated gesture of triumph. As such, there are many opportunities for an orchestra to fall below the occasion. To overemphasize subjects that were intended as ambiguous and linger too long on what would be better served by urgency. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, under Morlot’s understated conducting, I am happy to say, rose and soared up to the occasion.
Understatement as a style, which French authors of the previous century honed to perfection, seems to be just as potent on the podium. Morlot (a French conductor borrowed from the Seattle Symphony Orchestra to replace the initially scheduled David Robertson), even in the more emotionally intense segments of the third movement, remained reserved. Once, in anticipation of a thunderous crack on the timpani, he stomped his right foot – and the effect was a pleasurable jolt. All throughout he trailed behind the orchestra’s intensity and urged them on with subtle commands, allowing the brass and percussion sections to give muscle to the suppleness of his gestures. Despite the program’s slow start (which was announced before Morlot agreed to conduct it), the exhausting marathon of applause after the Finale was all that was needed to confirm the evening’s success – much of which is attributable to Morlot’s last-minute heroics in conducting a program that was the equivalent of an orchestral boost on the thermostat. And for that, I am grateful.
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented a program of Kurt Weill’s Suite from The Threepenny Opera; Stravinsky’s Concerto in D Major for Violin; and Sibelius’ Symphony No.2 in D Major, Op. 43 on January 10, 2019, at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.
Michael Zarathus-Cook is a student at the University of Toronto and a music and film blogger at www.briband.com.