This article appears in The WholeNote as part of our collaboration in the Emerging Arts Critics program.
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Brahms and Dvořák program on the evening of February 6 saw the honey-hued stage resemble a beehive, with dozens of instrumentalists shuffling across the platform and bringing Roy Thomson Hall to life with a gentle buzz. Sir Andrew Davis (the TSO’s interim artistic director and the show’s conductor) took the microphone to explain that the overflowing stage owed to the TSO and the TSYO (Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra) appearing together to present their yearly side-by-side showcase. He then swiftly turned toward them and, raising his arms, invited an eruption of lush sound by way of Oskar Morawetz’s 6-minute Carnival Overture, Op.2. Starting with a roar, this playful, bright, expansive soundscape juggled ceremonial and festive motifs to set the mood for the remainder of the evening.
The glowing energy lingered past the showcase as the TSYO members briskly exited the stage, giving way to Johannes Brahms’s weightier Concerto in A Minor for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra, Op.102. Featuring Joseph Johnson on cello and Jonathan Crow on violin, the piece began with thin, winding passages by each soloist in turn and then the two together in unison. Each solo elicited the feeling of a wistful inner monologue, with quickly-shifting rhythms that suggested an impulsive spontaneity. Then, as Johnson and Crow joined in a duet, they formed a conversation, echoing one another’s phrases with swift and deliberate timing like the speech of two people absorbed in candid dialogue: first like old friends catching up over tea, then like lovers whispering sweet promises, and then like the threat of a personal quarrel brewing.
After three minutes of this negotiation, the velvety violin and sinuous cello took shelter under a swelling transition: blooming full-force, orchestral sound swept over the hall, drowning out the urgency of the intimate conversation witnessed just moments before with a dense, towering lyricism. While the violin-cello duet was microcosmic, the orchestra offset this intimacy with something of the macrocosmic – like a bird’s-eye view over an entire city or a godly glance over an entire century. In this way, the performance of Concerto in A Minor was truly Romantic in style: each of its musical phrases, whether vast or brief, seemed to correspond to an inner emotional dilemma, a restlessness struggling to articulate and free itself into the world. As the orchestra waned toward the end, the melancholy inherent in Brahms’s writing springing to light through Johnson and Crow’s unflinching technique, a sense of termination settled in: the meditation of a person on their deathbed, tenderly recalling the enormity and the minuteness of a life lived.
Though Brahms’s music looks back wistfully, it also at moments looks forward in awe. When drums reverberated intermittently during the piece, conjuring the sounds of a marching band, an assurance washed over the audience – triumphs lay ahead. These very triumphs were given closure in the third piece of the evening, Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 in D Major, Op.60. Dvořák’s composition takes the idea of music evocative of landscape to its summit. The opening melody was quick and fresh – while it harkened back to Dvořák’s mentor in Brahms, not a whiff of his predecessor’s lament remained. This piece leapt ahead, feeling like a speeding train ride over a grassy hillside to an unknown destination. As in the Brahms, sonic peaks and valleys abounded, but here they were more regulated and rhythmic, suggesting a confident departure, a takeoff toward some kind of victory.
Considering Brahms and Dvořák’s nearly simultaneous careers, both works reflect the Romantic attitude of nineteenth-century Europe, interpreted with conviction by the TSO. But while Brahms’s style signature is reminiscence – collapsing even into remorse – Dvořák’s music is more rooted in the optimistic echoes of folk rhythms, several moments of his symphony channeling old Slavic lullabies. With these idyllic moments sprinkled into a steady flow of sentimentality, Dvořák’s piece interestingly produces a continuum to the Brahms even though he composed his symphony seven years earlier – as if anticipating it. Symphony No. 6 asserts boldly some of the enduring existential themes about individuality and community that Brahms’s Concerto in A Minor only dares to fantasize about. That said, experienced as a pair they are full of intermingling jewels for the ear and, mirrored by Sir Andrew Davis’ exuberant conducting, are a sweet sonic treat amidst the monotony of the midwinter lull.
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented “Brahms & Dvořák” on February 6, 7 and 9, at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.
Anna Paliy is a former rhythmic gymnast and second-year doctoral student in the Centre for Drama at the University of Toronto. Her academic research explores intercultural dance history (1890-1930), focusing on stories of emancipation through theatrical costume in ballet. Anna’s writing has appeared in the journals Kino, Semicolon, Transverse, and The Dance Current.