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Heading north from Union Station towards Roy Thomson Hall last evening, my wife Jan and I encountered enormous crowds that filled the sidewalks and overflowed onto University Avenue. A party was underway. The fans leaving the afternoon’s World Cup hockey game coincided with those arriving for the evening’s match. The excitement in the air was contagious as we anticipated the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s 2016/2017 season’s opening night. What changes would the orchestra have in store for us this year? Would all of the familiar orchestra members be back? Would it be a full house? Would we recognize familiar faces in the audience? The energy in the hall sizzled as we took our seats.

Indeed, the orchestra had returned virtually intact with Maestro Peter Oundjian back for his twelfth successive season as Artistic Director. In this listener’s opinion, he had planned a program based on the theme of love; and before long, it would become apparent that American soprano and operatic superstar Renée Fleming was the principal object of the audience’s love last evening.

The house was full and the crowd perhaps a bit younger than we had remembered. From the opening strains of O Canada, the audience was enthusiastic, singing with fervour and zeal. They responded whole-heartedly to the opening introductions and especially so to the dedication of the 2016/2017 season to the late and long-time patron Tom Beck.

The program began with Ravel’s Alborado del gracioso. One translation of the title, ‘The Comedian’s Aubade’, suggests a morning song by a lover setting out following a night of bliss. Ravel did a brilliant job of orchestrating the work which was originally written for piano and dedicated to M.D. Calvocoressi, a friend and fellow member of a group of artists known as ‘les Apaches’. The work served as a suitable overture to the evening with sparkling Basque rhythms and orchestral effects. Principal bassoonist Michael Sweeny in the middle section’s plaintive love cry written for bassoon was one of many orchestral soloists who shone.

A very different sonority was achieved with Ravel’s Shéhérazade. This three-movement work for soprano and orchestra uses poetry of Tristan Klingsor, fellow ‘les Apache’ group member. Each poem tells a separate story of passion, dreams and love as articulated by Shéhérazade herself, the narrator of The Arabian Nights. Here Renée Fleming convincingly embodied the poetry, bringing out all the inherent drama and singing with remarkable clarity. Never once did she over-power the orchestra which displayed significant nuance in its subtlety of expression. Ms. Fleming exuded from deep within, the love expressed in the words “Comme un mystérieux baiser”.

The orchestra opened the second half of the program with the spritely Overture to La scala di seta, a farcical comedic opera about love. From this point onwards, the evening was a party in full flight and a ‘love-fest’ for Ms. Fleming. Whether in the operatic arias, Italian popular art songs, or familiar Broadway tunes, she was at one with both the music and the audience. Si mi chiamano Mimi from Puccini’s La boheme succeeded in melting the heart of anyone not already enthralled by her charms. The aria was followed by familiar short songs by Tosti, Donaudy and Leoncavallo.

In contrast to these and immediately prior to Ms. Fleming’s finale, the strings performed William Walton’s Touch Her Soft Lips and Part from Henry V: A Shakespeare Scenario arranged by Christopher Palmer. Oundjian and the orchestra were exceeding successful in creating a sensuous interlude and demonstrated what a wonderful ensemble can do with such inviting music.

Thereafter, Fleming pulled out all the stops, becoming a broadway singer extraordinaire complete with amplification in her renditions of Whistle a Happy Tune, Something Wonderful and Shall We Dance. from the broadway musical The King and I. It took four encores to satisfy the audience including We Could Have Danced All Night from Rodger & Hammerstein's My Fair Lady and O mio babbino caro from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi.

If there had ever been any doubt about Renée Fleming being the ultimate diva, it was put to rest for this audience. Even orchestra members became Fleming’s groupies as at least one member not performing in the second half joined the audience to get another glimpse of stardom.

The TSO’s 2016/2017 opening night concert demonstrated the orchestra’s brilliance, virtuosity and sensitivity creating an abundance of anticipation for what promises to be a remarkable season. The orchestra will perform next on Friday September 23rd and Saturday September 24th. The program will include Randolph Peters’ Butterfly Wings and Tropical Storms, Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47 featuring violinist Henning Kraggerud, and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No.2 in E Minor, Op. 27.

Review by David Richards
Toronto ON  September 21, 2016

Soprano Renée Fleming, conductor Peter Oundjian and the TSO;

Photo credit Dale Wilcox

Renée Fleming transforms TSO’s opening night into a ‘love fest’!