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Toronto Symphony Orchestra probes the depths of longing and hope with conductor Thomas Dausgaard and cellist Alisa Weilerstein

Thomas Dausgaard and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Photo Credit: Jag Gundu

Alisa Weilerstein, Thomas Dausgaard and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Photo credit: Jag Gundu

Last night at Roy Thomson Hall, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra with conductor Thomas Dausgaard and cellist Alisa Weilerstein probed the depths of longing, despondency and ultimately hope in the music of Shostakovich, Bartók and the Danish post-romantic composer, Rued Langgaard. With little expectation on my part, never having heard either the Langgaard or the Shostakovich works, the concert turned into perhaps the most satisfying of the TSO season.

Concerts that leave  lasting memories for me are those that evoke an emotional response at a deep level. A combination of attempting to understand intellectually the composer’s intent; hearing great music played exquisitely with moments of physical exhilaration; and then reflecting on the impact together make for a satisfying evening.

Such was the case last night. The program opened with the Danish conductor presenting the North American première of Rued Langgaard’s Prelude to “Antikrist”. The ten-minute concert version of the prelude to the opera composed and revised in the 1920’s uses diatonic syntax with dissonances coming from various percussion and plucked strings to present the gloomy picture of an apathetic world on its road to destruction. The final “chorale” taken from the conclusion of the opera gives a musical picture of the heavenly peace that follows the Biblical judgment. Langgaard’s music deserves to be heard. The prolific composer of 16 symphonies is rarely performed on this side of the Atlantic.

The gloomy picture of Langgaard’s world continued with Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 2, Op. 126. Composed for  cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, the work is far less common than his first, also dedicated to Rostropovich. American cellist Alisa Weilerstein at age 36, is at the height of her artistry. She brought out the dark and moody character of the music, perhaps inspired by the activist Rostropovich who would soon leave the Soviet Union or perhaps by his own growing up years seeing the horrors of starvation and oppression all around. From the opening solo, Weilerstein became almost a part of the orchestra, with an introspective, brooding and intensely despondent mood that blended seamlessly with the orchestral writing. The movement ended with an ominous horn solo. The second movement, built on a 1920's Odessa street song, "Bubliki, kupitye bubliki," translates something like, "You've got a ruble, I've got a bagel, buy my bagels…". The rhythmic bite, and orchestral colours ring of irony, recalling days of extreme poverty. The final movement opens with brilliant horn fanfares and then a sort of cadenza with a tambourine accompaniment. There is a war-like march, chaotic frenzy, and moments of wistful lyricism, with interjections by clackers, wood blocks, snare drum and xylophone. The work concludes with a sense of being drained of hope and resigned to an inevitable sadness. Weilerstein delivered an emotional performance. 

Following intermission came Bela Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. The work was composed in 1944 while Bartók was suffering from leukemia which would end his life just a year later and while in self-imposed exile from Hungary because of its Nazi alliance. Although it begins (with the low strings) in a mood of suffering and hopelessness, the work is a masterpiece of triumph for the human spirit. Listening to it last night, it is no wonder that it is revered today as a major work of the century. The music, like all great music, never grows old. The second movement with its “Game of Pairs” in which duets of wind instruments playfully cavort together; the haunting “Elegy”; the fourth movement with its innocent folk music all lead up to a brilliant finale with energetic strings and brass fanfares creating the thrilling and hopeful ending that the concert needed and wanted. Dausgaard gave a thoroughly engaged performance that reached my emotional depths with the orchestra's dynamically rich, precise ensemble playing. If Bartók could find hope in his world, surely  we can find hope in today's world of uncertainty.

You can hear this program this evening, Thursday February 21st 2019 at 8pm at Roy Thomson Hall. On Saturday, February 23rd at 8pm, The National Arts Centre Orchestra conducted by its Music Director Alexander Shelley with soloists David Fray, piano, Concertmaster Yosuke Kawasaki, and violinist Jessica Linnebach will perform works by Jocelyn Morlock,  Frédérik Chopin and Robert Schumann. 

​​Review by  David Richards
oronto ON  February 21st 2019