The Blackcreek Festival ended on Saturday night in grand style, with the London Symphony Orchestra performing in Toronto for the first time in thirty years. It was a splendid evening for sitting outside under an open sky enjoying Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Perfect weather was no small matter here, since that very evening the whole of the east coast was battening down for Hurricane Irene, and the festival had already had to postpone or cut short concerts because of persistent rain and lightening. The Rexall Centre was well-filled. Parking on the  campus of York University went smoothly, without the gridlock that had marred the opening concert with Domingo and Radvanovsky.

The  amplification system succeeded, by and large, in turning a tennis stadium into a concert hall. The sound was surprisingly natural, with the winds especially rich in tone. The strings offered some beautiful ensemble playing, especially with the cellos singing out in the third movement. But they suffered most from a general lack of resonance in the sound, and were particularly thin at the top.

The transparent textures conductor Lorin Maazel achieved were delightful, and the lovely details he brought out were a treat. But they were at times overwhelmed by his stately tempos and drawn-out pauses. In fact, at one point in the final movement Maazel lingered so long that members of the audience started clapping, presumably because they thought the piece was over.  This was the slowest Beethoven’s Ninth I’ve ever heard.

BlackCreek’s controversial artistic director Garth Drabinsky once again enlisted Stephen Cera, who had put together the series of concerts at the Ford Centre (now the Toronto Centre for the Arts) for him back in the 1990’s, as programmer. Here they assembled four elite soloists for the final movement of the Beethoven. The big catch was German bass René Pape, making his Canadian debut, who opened the concert in style with the Coronation Scene from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, an opera he sang last season at the Met. Pape was so good that I was sorry that a concert of opera arias featuring him with Maazel and the LSO had been cancelled by BlackCreek due to poor sales.

Toronto’s own soprano Adrianne Pieczonka and tenor Richard Margison both soared thrillingly, as did Russian mezzo Ekaterina Metlova, though Margison and Maazel didn’t appear to see eye to eye on the tempo for Margison’s dramatic entrance.  The  splendid chorus assembled  by local choral wizard Robert Cooper sang with gusto in both works.

A giant video screen mounted above the stage offered close-ups of the performers from various angles. Maazel’s precise, clear beat was especially interesting to watch. But why not use at least one screen for English translations of Mussorgsky’s own text for Boris, and Schiller’s famous Ode to Joy in the Beethoven -  especially since the texts weren’t included in the program.

Will this troubled but remarkable festival be able to get its act together and continue next year? I’m left hoping it does – especially if it can keep up the high standards in classical programming.

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