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It has become commonplace for the Royal Conservatory Orchestra to impress with virtuosic, committed performances. Last Friday night's concert at Koerner Hall was no exception. Under the baton of Johannes Debus, the orchestra displayed an ideal combination of mature artistry and youthful energy in works that would challenge the finest professional orchestras. 

Before I get ahead of myself, the evening began with virtuosity of a more intimate variety. For the early birds, there was a half hour chamber music performance by students of the Glenn Gould School. Jean-Luc Therrien, in his final year of the Artist Diploma program, performed seven of the nine movements from Robert Schuman’s Waldszenen (Forest Scenes) Op. 82. It was easy to find oneself in the haunted forest of Schuman’s imagination. His playing was absolutely exquisite. Next came the first movement of Johannes Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34 with the recent RC concerto competition winner, Thomas Torok on the ever so demanding piano part. The string quartet included violinists Royce Rich and Artur Chakhmakhchyan, violist Ellis Yuen-Rati and cellist Kanon Shibata. Together, they found beauty in the dense musical structure.

The orchestral program began with Richard Strauss' tone poem, Don Juan, op. 20, TrV156. The opening turbulent theme demanded precision and bold playing from every section – not for the faint of heart. Debus, ever the precise technician on the podium, demanded nothing less than a driving tempo with nuanced playing in what becomes a musical description of the passion and obsession of Don Juan leading ultimately to his own demise. Among the most beautiful moments of the work were the solos first by concertmaster Colin Laursen and later by principal oboist June Kim.

What followed was perhaps the highlight of the season. Soloist Zuri Wells, winner of the 2019 Glenn Gould Concerto Competition, performed her winning piece, a dazzling work by contemporary Japanese composer Keiko Abe. Prism Rhapsody is a virtuosic showstopper for Wells. At times controlling six mallets, she manipulated the polyrhythms, harmonies and passages that seem to defy possibilities. The music built to a thrilling ending that left me breathless. Wells is an artist of enormous talent who has developed her technique and musicianship to a rare degree. I will be surprised if we don’t see her in front of major orchestras in the near future.

Soloist Zuri Wells with Guest Conductor Johannes Debus
​and the Royal Conservatory Orchestra
​Photo credit: The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall; Lisa Sakulensky

Following intermission, Debus led a stirring performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major, op. 92.  This mature work of Beethoven is one that every professional orchestral player must be intimately familiar with. The orchestra was stunning in its ensemble playing. I loved the tension that was created in the introduction to the first movement with the huge chords and ascending scales. In the second movement, the cellos displayed a beautiful singing tone in their countermelody. It was in the finale, that Debus coaxed the most out of the orchestra. He took a tempo that 'ripped.' I was amazed that the orchestra could handle it and make it work so well. This was no playing down to the level of a young orchestra. Debus demanded a stunning performance and that is exactly what he got.

The orchestra worked with Debus for one week on this program with Debus simultaneously conducting Hansel and Gretel down the road at the COC. That he brought his high energy to the RC Orchestra is a tribute to his commitment to mentoring young performers. That the orchestra responded so magnificently, is a tribute to their training, their discipline and the inspiration coming from the podium. I shouldn’t be surprised however; it seems to happen at every RC Orchestra performance. The fact that I become overwhelmed by the quality of music at every RC Orchestra performance I attend now seems like a given.

The orchestra will perform its final concert of the season at Koerner Hall on Friday, May 1st 2020 when Gábor Takács-Nagy conducts a program of music by Shostakovich, Mozart and Bartók with violinist Yu Kai Sun as soloist. As usual, there will be a Prelude Recital and a pre-concert talk for the early birds.

Review by David Richards
Toronto ON February 18th 2020

Royal Conservatory Orchestra with Guest Conductor Johannes Debus
​and Marimba Soloist Zuri Wells 
​Photo credit: The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall; Lisa Sakulensky

Royal Conservatory Orchestra with Johannes Debus leaves a lasting impression!