Saraste + Sibelius; Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Wednesday, Mar. 23 to Saturday, Mar. 26, 2022; Roy Thomson Hall. Tickets here.
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is back? We should not say so offhandedly. The ensemble has been active this season despite regulatory hardships, presenting economic programs before crowds to match.
It has been a while, however, since subscribers have seen the stage of Roy Thomson Hall as packed with personnel as it was Thursday for the second of three concerts combining two symphonies by Sibelius, a contemporary work written for full orchestra, and then some.
In charge was former TSO music director Jukka-Pekka Saraste, a Finn who assures a degree of quality control where his most famous musical compatriot is concerned. Epic, pastoral and playful qualities were appropriately highlighted and balanced, notably in the Fifth Symphonywhich we heard after intermission.
If some woodwind details were given less time than they needed to make their full expressive effect, the momentum never sagged. Strings were agile in the bustle at the start of the finale and full-toned in the sweeping lines that follow. Something about the cold intensity of the TSO string sound is suited to Sibelius – and our northern climate.
Conducting from memory and often lifting his arms above his shoulders, Saraste was in a keep-it-moving mood, even to the extent of suppressing a break after the second movement. Were horns louder in their ostinato figures than they needed to be? Might the hammer strokes of the final page have benefited from longer pauses? I suppose I would not ask if I did not think so.
Earlier we heard the compact Seventh Symphony. Strings were vibrant, but interpretive detail was lacking. This visionary score of 1924 should transport the listener to another dimension. Here it sounded worthy but terrestrial.
The concert opened with Crimson by TSO 2021-22 spotlight artist Samy Moussa, a Canadian composer who has been making an impression on both sides of the Atlantic. Starting with a dazzling fortissimo blaze – percussion by no means excluded – the music pulsed affirmatively for a while before calming itself in interesting and evocative ways. It was as if tranquility, contrary to expectation, formed the climax. Written in 2015, the 12-minute score offers a valid message for our difficult days.
These concerts (there is another Saturday night) are the first in a long time to make masks optional. Many patrons continued to wear them, as did many musicians. I went the nudist route. What an odd feeling. I might get used to it.
The audience was enthusiastic – remarkably so in response to Moussa – but small. The notion of full capacity is clearly still a novelty. And a program without a soloist is never easy to sell. All the same, we are on the road to recovery. Let us hope that it is not too steep.
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