Review by Paul Merkley, FRSC

​Toronto ON February 15th 2018

TSO: From Russia with love...

TSO Conductor Laureate Sir Andrew Davis and TSO; ​P​hoto credit: Jag Gundu/TSO


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Harpist Heidi Van Hoesen Gorton; ​P​hoto credit: Jag Gundu/TSO

But soft! What notes through yonder viols sound? Shakespeare did not write his prologue that way, but he could have. Romeo and Juliet has been translated into many languages: Russian certainly, Klingon probably (unless that was the language it was originally written in), and into Russian music absolutely, specifically the ballet of that title composed by Prokofiev in 1935, from which Sir Andrew Davis arranged an orchestral suite performed by the TSO. Prokofiev did not arrange this ballet music into a suite, but he could have; indeed he did this for another of his ballets.

The suite, well arranged and well performed, was first and foremost a study in contrasts. The clashing discord at the very beginning seemed to express the violence between the two feuding families (in the prologue, ‘civil blood makes civil hands unclean’) and the serene quiet chords afterwards the peace of the city soon to be disrupted by the Montagues and Capulets. Juliet’s passages were lighter than air, and her melodies seemed to float effortlessly in the cellos, violins, flutes, and oboes; the deep, heavy notes in the lower brass expressed the strength and menace in the dance of the Montagues.

Why did Prokofiev with his modern style move back to the artistically restrictive environment of Russia? No one can say, but this work did not run him into trouble with the authorities. It was not ‘formalist’, i.e. it expressed scenes instead of just presenting forms. It served a function in that it was written to be danced to. Although it makes effective use of dissonance, there is not so much of it that the communist committee would have cried foul, and it did not.

Glière’s Harp Concerto was written at almost the same time as the ballet, but seems a world apart in musical style. Very little dissonance found its way into this piece, and most of it in the orchestra. Instruments have their idioms and natures. Trombones have been used in the theatre to symbolize death for centuries, and when they snarl as they do in Romeo and Juliet, mortal danger is near. The harp is built for arpeggios and diatonic scales, for beautiful soft plucked effects, not for bloody vengeance. TSO harpist Heidi Van Hoesen Gorton excelled on her instrument; the sounds were heavenly.

The overture of the evening was by Balakirev, a work from the late nineteenth century, formed principally by three Russian folk songs, one of them taken up later by Tchaikovsky, another by Stravinsky. The light-hearted melodies and easy harmonies made the sound of an earlier time, simpler and more innocent than the musical world of Prokofiev. Altogether the program made for a fine evening of Russian music history, from the simple melodies of Balakirev, through the harp concerto that certainly conformed to the communist aesthetic, to Prokofiev’s untamed rhythms and strong harmonies. Don’t miss this performance which will be repeated this evening, February 15th 2018 at 8pm!

Next to come for the TSO is The Wizard of Oz with Live Orchestra on February 17th and 18th 2018.