This article appears in The WholeNote as part of our collaboration in the Emerging Arts Critics program.
For better and worse, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s (TSO) February 20 performance reminded me of a fundamental (if discomfiting) truth about the art of music: it doesn’t have to make you feel good to be good. While the program billed solo cellist Alisa Weilerstein as its headliner – and gave her ample room to blow the audience away with her vigorous interpretation of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No.2 – it was aesthetically anchored by conductor Thomas Dausgaard’s presentation of two other 20th-century European works, Rued Langgaard’s Prelude to Antikrist and Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. Briefly addressing the audience prior to the performance, Dausgaard described the works as depictions of crisis, confusion and sociocultural “upside-downness” – not dissimilar from the times we live in today. Yet all three composers, he added, also expressed hope for a better world through the sheer beauty of their music. Dausgaard’s comments conveyed a vision of classical music as something that can elevate us beyond the everyday, delivering a nobler and better feeling than any available in reality. Where the evening’s performances really shone, though, was in their exhibition of something quite different: a demanding, even stressful disunity that made the audience work – with both their minds and their hearts – to be compelled by the frictions, tensions and disparities of the modern world.
The concert opened with the North American premiere of the Prelude to Antikrist by Rued Langgaard – a prolific Danish composer whose works Dausgaard, also Danish, has premiered abroad before. In the piece’s opening salvos, Dausgaard’s quavering hands guided sounds both epic and trancelike, perfectly capturing the sense of moral aimlessness he had alluded to in his introductory address. These early passages also made brilliant use of layered dynamics, as individual notes by the violins, violas and cellos stood out only briefly before fading back into the haunting swell. But as soon as the brass began to dominate the sound, I found myself pulled out of the reverie: the cohesion between the orchestra’s instrument groups dissolved, and the rhythm began to feel flatter and more mechanical than the divine presence that had inspired it. Maybe it’s a sign of the times, but the orchestra seemed unable to deliver the sense of salvation Langgaard hoped would counteract Antikrist’s apocalyptic setting.
Of the night’s three works, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No.2, Op.126, composed in the Soviet Union in 1966, most highlighted the evocative disjunctions between instruments, styles and sounds that defined the evening. Several phrases of Shostakovich’s composition felt like interruptions – especially the xylophone, which sounded perversely bubbly against the sombre solo cello. But I soon realized that these jarring contrasts were exactly the point: the interruptions themselves made the music what it was. This came to the fore in a duet (of sorts) between the bass drum – whose thwack and boom seemed excessively, even disturbingly loud – and Weilerstein’s cello, which jerked between harshly contrasting phrases like a puppet of the drummer’s whims.
Weilerstein’s performance as soloist easily surpassed expectations. As the composition evolved beyond the languorous and bone-chilling melodies of its first movement, she pushed her instrument further and further, clawing and shaking the cello as she engineered queasy pitch slides and convulsive pizzicatos. In one moment, I was airily borne along by soft, smooth trills, while the next would stop me dead with the sawing of an intense bow stroke. The effect was deeply and provocatively frightening, and I stepped out into intermission with my head rattled.
With the evening only half over following Weilerstein’s exit, the audience was left in Dausgaard’s hands for the duration of Hungarian composer Béla Bartók’s 1944 Concerto for Orchestra, originally composed for an American audience in the last years of his life. The piece brought out stellar performances by all sections of the orchestra as it careened through dizzying transitions of pitch, volume and texture, all reliably signalled by Dausgaard’s conducting. These were especially poignant during the work’s second movement, which used rousing, dancelike rhythms to set up single-instrument showcases including, notably, a sad and stately passage by the trombones against a snare drum. By the piece’s rambunctious fifth movement – described as a “life-assertion” by Bartók – Dausgaard was literally dancing on his conductor’s platform.
It seemed like the concerto’s final vibrant burst was exactly what the audience had been waiting for, and a standing ovation erupted almost immediately. I wondered, though, whether the night’s harmonious conclusion had been earned too easily, especially after Weilerstein’s virtuosically agonized performance in the evening’s first half. Personally, my favourite part of the Bartók had come not in the lively fifth, but the brief fourth movement, when the broken, brassy whine of a parade band evoked a deeply disunited, yet also diverse and compelling, territory of contrasting parts.
As a whole, the evening felt indebted to an enduring question about music: do we listen for the transcendent pleasure of things fitting together, or to reflect more deeply on the many ways they don’t? It may not always be comfortable – but for this performance at least, my lot was with the latter.
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented “Alisa Weilerstein” on February 20 and 21, at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.
John Nyman is a poet, critic and scholar from Toronto. In addition to reviewing for Opera Canada and The Dance Current as part of the 2018/19 Emerging Arts Critics program, he has reviewed literature for publications including Broken Pencil and The Puritan as well as visual art for Border Crossings and Peripheral Review.