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Pianist Stephen Hough, guest conductor Elim Chan and TSO
​​Photo credit: Jag Gundu

The TSO Creates a Romance of Melody on Valentines Weekend 

Review by Jeff Mitchell
Toronto ON February 18th 2020

For this Valentine’s Day weekend, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra fittingly featured two enduringly popular works by renowned late Romantic Russian composers: the powerfully emotive Piano Concerto #2 in C-, Op. 18 by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), and the fantastical Scheherazade, Op. 35 by Nikolai Rimsky-Kosakov (1844-1908).

Veteran British-born pianist Stephen Hough performed the Rachmaninoff with grace and style. Though Concertmaster Jonathan Crow was the billed soloist in Scheherazade – and played beautifully as always – that work also provides numerous opportunities for other members of the orchestra to take solo turns, all of which were stunning. Under the baton of dynamic young conductor, Elim Chan, making her TSO début, the orchestra sounded as alive and vibrant as I have ever heard it. Chan was the first female winner of the Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition and is currently Chief Conductor of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra.

The concert opened with the Canadian premiere of a short work by contemporary American composer, Elizabeth Ogonek, entitled “as through birds”. Composed in 2013 when Ogonek was only 23 years old, the work is a dazzling array of orchestral sound effects, compelling in its originality and tonal contrasts. For a brilliant and detailed analysis of this work, please see here for Hannah Chan-Hartley’s program notes. Despite the work’s three-minute span, it allowed Maestro Chan to display a range of concisely angular, broadly sweeping and lightly nimble conducting techniques that would define her approach in the larger works to follow.

In his introductory comments about the evening’s program, long-time TSO violinist Peter Seminovs observed that bells mean a lot in Russian culture, and indeed, the famous opening chromatic chords of the Rachmaninoff are a testament to the majesty of bell tones. Hough played these chords in a relaxed but firm manner. The orchestra then entered with the first theme, while the piano accompanied with a series of extended, fast runs, which highlighted the suppleness of Hough’s style. As noted earlier, the overall sound of the orchestra was magnificent, with a rich and full blend of all strings. Indeed, the string sound is so pure that each section sounded like one instrument.

The second movement, of course, opens with that lovely, soft string sound, over which Principal Flute Kelly Zimba played her clear-as-a-bell solo, which morphed seamlessly into the achingly beautiful clarinet solo by Associate Principal Eric Abramovitz, followed then by the famously melancholic main theme of the movement introduced so sensitively by Hough and subsequently developed with great care and feeling. 

In the third movement, the power of the orchestra sometimes overshadowed the piano, but nevertheless, the melodic character of the movement was brought out brilliantly by Hough, and his technical virtuosity was on full display in the rousing conclusion to the work. The appreciative capacity audience gave him a prolonged ovation, and they were rewarded by a charming solo encore performance of Chopin’s Nocturne in E Flat (Op. 9. No. 2).

I do not possess the critical insight necessary to do justice to the TSO’s spellbinding performance of Scheherazade. Let me say that Jonathan Crow’s opening solo was gorgeous and resonant.  Maestro Chan conducted the orchestra in a manner that unerringly captured the spirit of the music in each of the four movements, and this, I felt, encouraged the orchestra to match her enthusiasm and clarity.

As noted earlier, this work places a premium on the virtuosic talents of many members of the orchestra besides the Concertmaster. In the second movement particularly, principal oboe Sarah Jeffrey, principal clarinet Joaquin Valdepeñas and principal cello Joseph Johnson all shone brightly. As well, piccolo player Camille Watts was brilliant.

The famously lyrical melody that opens the third movement was played by the violins with such gentle warmth, and after the second and more jovial theme was stated by the clarinet, the first theme was then taken on by the cellos with wonderful richness of tone across the entire section.  The movement unfolds in this pattern through numerous iterations.

The exciting fourth movement, “Allegro molto”, which recapitulates themes heard in earlier movements, opens with some exquisite double-stop playing from Crow and spectacularly articulated passages in the winds and brass, led by principal trumpet Andrew McCandless, building to the tumultuous climax. After great turbulence comes peace and tranquility, captured with such beauty by Crow’s final solo, with its ethereal harmonics and the soft accompaniment of the orchestra.

On Wednesday, February 19th 2020 at Roy Thomson Hall, the TSO will present the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal with organist Olivier Latry and conductor Kent Nagano. The program will include Dusapin’s Duo for Organ and Orchestra and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral”