It was about five years ago when I first encountered the then teenage piano sensation Jan Lisiecki. I had been aware of him, but had not yet heard him live. My wife and I were vacationing on our sailboat in the Thousand Islands when I saw a poster at the marina. I quickly learned that tickets were unavailable but nevertheless, we got our names on the waiting list. A few hours before show time, we were called and told that we would be able to buy tickets, but that we would be on the stage. We could have been page turners had there been a need. The Chopin Études that Lisiecki performed that evening are forever etched in my memory as are his good humour, boyish face, and golden hair. Since then, he has been in these parts many times and in his return performance last night with the Toronto Symphony, he was met with a greeting appropriate for a conquering hero.
Lisiecki has been on a whirlwind tour in 2017 and despite his heavy schedule of performances in Europe, he has made a point of including Canada in his itinerary. Since January, he has been in Germany, Italy and Switzerland and has somehow fit in concerts in Calgary, Edmonton and Regina. Following his concerts in Toronto, he will be giving solos recitals in Kingston, London and Saskatoon before flying to New York for a performance with the London Symphony Orchestra in Lincoln Centre. In this sesqui-centennial year, he will be back in Canada in April, June and August. His plans also include performances with the TSO in Germany in May. He has clearly become the latest Canadian ambassador of the piano at home and abroad.
Last night’s TSO concert opened with one of its co-commissioned short fanfare-inspired works for Canada Mosaic, a Signature Project of the Government of Canada for Canada’s 150th. From February to June, there will be at least fourteen of these new works performed here in Toronto and with the corresponding co-commissioning orchestras elsewhere in the country. The TSO teamed up Toronto’s Esprit Orchestra to commission Montreal composer Jean Rea. Opening with a timpani roll and trumpet fanfare, the work Survivance was a two minute proclamation of Canada’s ongoing miracles of survival through the “renunciation of dominance, tragedy and victimization”.
For the remainder of the first half of the concert, guest conductor Jakub Hrůša led a performance of Richard Strauss' tone poem Tod und Verklärund, Op.24 (Death and Transfiguration). The programmatic work tells the story of the death of a man of high ideals and his ascension into eternal bliss. For the listener, it was as if one were told to sit back in one's chair for a half hour in order to go through an agonizing death only to find oneself in eternity. From the outset the orchestra had the daunting task of the many dramatic changes representing the pain and torture of death with the easing of the pain and the fond memories that replaced it. Hrůša effectively balanced the many colours of the orchestra and created the massive contrasts that Strauss had imagined for this work. . Oboist Sarah Jeffrey, flutist Nora Shulman and concertmaster Jonathan Crow were just a few of the orchestra’s principals who were sublime in their solos. At the climax of the work, the sounds of the full orchestra penetrated to the depths of the soul which was then lifted heavenward by the flutes, upper strings and harp.
Following intermission, Hrůša and Lisiecki joined the orchestra for Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op.54. This again was a work of sublime beauty contrasted with great drama and tension. Both orchestra and pianist were engaged in making this an eventful performance. Lisiecki released a recording of the work for Deutsche Grammophon last year and has been touring with it in Europe. Last night was Toronto’s first opportunity to hear him perform the work. The gentle strands of the romantic melody and the dynamic furor of Lisiecki's virtuosic athleticism were equally captivating. After an endless standing ovation, Lisiecki added as an encore, Schumann’s Träumerei from Kinderszenen Op. 15. It was performed with the tenderness of a wistful daydream.
Jan Lisiecki with conductor Jakub Hrůša and TSO; Photo credit: Jag Gundu
Concluding the program, the TSO garnered all of its forces, one hundred and five musicians, to perform Alexander Scriabin’s tone poem, Le poѐme de l'extase (The Poem of Ecstacy) Op.54. The trumpet solos by principal trumpet Andrew McCandless were electrifying. But equally moving were the gentler moments in the work which featured solos in each of the sections. The result was a magnificent showpiece for both orchestra and conductor. The work gave the Czech conductor Hrůša the opportunity to display his skills in creating dramatic shifts from fragile sensuous moments to huge climaxes. The thirty-five year old conductor having already established himself as a sought after guest-conductor, has recently begun tenure as chief conductor of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra. The dynamic energy that he inspired in the orchestra’s performance of the Scriabin may well put him on the list to be considered for the TSO position which will become available in 2018.
Last night’s program will be repeated tonight at 8pm at Roy Thomson Hall. Next on the TSO's calendar is a film-orchestra collaboration of the Disney-Pixar film Ratatouille in concert with the score by Michael Giacchino on Saturday February 18th at 11:30am and 4:00pm. The conductor will be Sarah Hicks.
Guest conductor Jakub Hrůša and TSO; Photo credit: Jag Gundu
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Jan Lisiecki returns to Toronto as a conquering hero!
Review by David Richards
Toronto ON February 16th 2017