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Conductor Gemma New; Photo credit: Fred Stucker Photography 

Mozart and Mahler: music of the highest order performed magnificently!

Song of the Earth orchestra with tenor Mario Bahg, mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb
​and conductor Gemma New

Although there are still two days and two concerts remaining in the Toronto Summer Music schedule, last night was a sort of culmination of three wonderful weeks of chamber music and art songs. The three weeks have ended for us at Toronto Concert Reviews much as they began, with a magnificent program that stretched the borders of chamber music by adopting arrangements of orchestral works to much smaller forces. In the opening concert, Adrianne Pieczonka sang an arrangement by George Crumb of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs with piano and string quartet. Last night, it was Gustav Mahler’s symphonic masterpiece for two singers and large orchestra arranged for a pared down minimalist chamber orchestra by Arnold Schoenberg and Rainer Riehn. 

In the Opening Night concert, Artistic Director Jonathan Crow gave introductory remarks and limited his playing to an accompaniment role in the Strauss work. Last night, however, he was the consummate solo artist, performing W.A. Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219. Conductor Gemma New led an orchestra made up of the strings of the Chamber Music Academy along with some of Canada’s finest orchestral players. Barry Shiffman was concertmaster while several Toronto Symphony musicians provided the winds and key roles among the strings.

​​by David Richards
oronto ON August 1st 2019

The warmth of the sound of the orchestra in the magnificent acoustics of Koerner Hall gave the concerto the intimacy of a chamber music performance. Jonathan Crow’s playing was beyond words. His surprising first entry with its dream-like lyricism contrasting the opening allegro was the first of many surprises in the music. The second movement allowed Crow to demonstrate his lyricism again in the upper range of the instrument, singing over the variety of orchestral colours. He captured the contrasts in the third movement with delightful energy.  

I was not surprised that the Academy Fellows would fit in so well with the professionals in the Mozart. I had heard them play many times over the past few weeks. I was surprised that the cohesion of this orchestra was so very special. It has been Crow’s vision to shrink the distinction between professional concerts and those of the Academy. Last night’s concert went a long way to accomplishing just that.

In the second half of the program, the audience had a glimpse of another of Crow’s visionary goals: to bring great artists to the Festival. Tenor Mario Bahg and mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb gave performances to remember for a long time. Bahg, the first prize winner at the prestigious Concours Musical International de Montréal has a stunningly powerful yet warm voice in all registers. It is no wonder that he is already being featured on the major stages of the world. Similarly, Chaieb came with laurels achieved. The Canadian-Tunisian singer is a member of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Program, a 2016 winner of the Gerda Lissner International Vocal Competition, and a rising star in the lyric mezzo-soprano repertoire. The singing of Bahg and Chaieb in Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde was utterly magnificent.

The Mahler orchestra consisted of string and wind quintets (with oboe doubling on English Horn and clarinet doubling on Bass Clarinet), piano, celeste, harmonium and percussion. The colours that came from that ensemble were astonishing. I didn’t miss the large orchestra even for an instant. In one instance, the poignant sounds of the tam-tam, pizzicato bass, and the low note on the piano combined with an austere oboe solo that gave me chills.

Toronto Summer Music concludes this weekend with concerts tonight and Saturday evening, August 3rd 2019 at University of Toronto’s Walter Hall. The Festival has been an overwhelming success with twelve sold-out concerts, great artists and a high standard of performance at each concert we have attended. Jonathan Crow has not only wowed the Festival’s audiences with his virtuosity in his own performances, but as Artistic Director of the Festival, he has maintained an incredible energy level in overseeing the growth of what has become a superbly fulfilling summer music experience for Toronto audiences.