Review by Paul Merkley F.R.S.C.
Toronto ON January 11th 2019
Leila Josefowicz, Guest Conductor Ludovic Morlot and TSO;
Photo credit:@ Nick Wons
Weill, Stravinsky, and Sibelius: TSO presents a study in contrasts
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Guest Conductor Ludovic Morlot; Photo credit: @Nick Wons
One idea of history is that only one important thing happened in any given period, one musical style, one central composer and so on. Tonight’s performance by the TSO showed how much richer the history of music is than that limited idea.
The evening began with seventeen musicians, winds plus piano, percussion, banjo, and accordion (the accomplished Joseph Macerollo, who has been called ‘an icon of classical accordion in Canada’) playing the suite (1929) to The Threepenny Opera (1928) by Bertold Brecht (two years before his Marxist period) and Kurt Weill. The music is meant to challenge the operatic status quo by its vernacular melodies (Weill wrote the song Mack the Knife for the production). But Brecht’s goals for his dramas were lofty (his poem “Theatre / To step into the light / the people who can be entertained / those who can be met / those who can be changed” makes that clear), and the sounds of the unusual combinations of instruments, and some of the harmonic language, demonstrate that this is a sophisticated musical work. It speaks to the depth of the members of the TSO that the work was executed beautifully and none of the performers were principals of the orchestra.
Next on the program was Stravinsky’s Concerto in D Major for Violin, with the impressive soloist Leila Josefowicz. Specialized in the performance of modern works, Josefowicz excelled in expressivity and communication, bringing the music to life, turning now to concert master Jonathan Crow for his solo with her, now to violist Theresa Rudolph, and to each member of the orchestra with whom she had a musical dialogue. The high, isolated harmonics she played were spot on, her rhythms were energetic, and she made the entire concerto a narrative that held the audience’s attention throughout. She is a virtuoso and an artist who speaks to the audience. She brings an understanding and expertise to modern music that few performers accomplish. She was born in Mississauga. Just saying.
The orchestra was larger for Stravinsky’s work, but not a full, romantic orchestra. There were only sixteen violins plus Josefowicz; the strings are important in his works, but the winds are proportionally more important in representation and writing that in earlier music. For example there were three bassoonists.
Stravinsky’s orchestration affects our perception of his harmonies and harmonic language. This work has clear tonal centres, and some of the language is diatonic, but the use of the winds and the inversions of the harmonies often obscure that. The strong, driving rhythms make the piece immediately accessible, and, although this musical language is removed from edgy works like The Rite of Spring, the composer’s experience in writing ballets is evident. The music gives the impression of dance, and it is not surprising that George Balanchine later choreographed part of it.
Stravinsky composed this concerto in 1931, and wrote it in what has been called his neoclassical style. The term is used imprecisely and too often, but in this case, the form itself is classical, each movement begins with a triple stop (three notes at once) on the violin (an effect one could call ‘neo-Baroque / Renaissance’ because it is idiomatic to the viola da gamba), sonata form is used, and there are diatonic scales, all of these features coming in a work after the period in which he used large amounts of dissonance, polytonality, and other modern elements.
One of the two most famous composers of the twentieth century, Stravinsky and his styles have been misunderstood, largely because in this author's opinion, Robert Craft controlled the historical narrative, giving access to source materials only to those he chose, and only when he received half credit for their work. Now the exciting young musicologist Kimberly Francis (professor at the University of Guelph) has written a book, currently at press, based largely on the correspondence between Stravinsky and Nadia Boulanger, proving her great importance in the composer’s musical formation, upsetting and inverting much of what has been written about him. When one thinks of Boulanger’s teaching and musical propensities, it is tempting to ask whether she had a significant influence on his neoclassical style. I cannot wait to read the book!
The second half of the evening was given over to Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43. For this work the orchestra was larger. The cohort of violins absent for Weil’s work, 16 for Stravinsky, grew to 28 for Sibelius. The bassoonists changed from three for Stravinsky to two for Sibelius, in general what is considered the standard orchestra of the late nineteenth century.
Sibelius’s music is mainly known as an expression of Finnish nationalism. Indeed he did use Finnish folk songs in some of his works, and his Finlandia is emblematic of his country, but there is much more to his contribution to music than that. The second symphony was said at the time to depict the struggle of Finns against czarist oppression, but Sibelius did not state that, and I do not hear that narrative in the music.
The orchestra is romantic, the arching melodies are romantic, and many of them singable (unlike the writing of Stravinsky), but the unusual combinations of instruments and the use of orchestral effects to give shape to the movements are modern features. The second movement begins with an extended section of the basses playing pizzicato, followed by a pizzicato section by the cellos. This is accompanied by quiet playing on the timpani. Near the end, the two bassoons join the texture, playing in octaves with each other. It is a quiet, enigmatic beginning that quickly builds into the deployment of the full orchestra playing forcefully, a dramatically shaped beginning to this enigmatic movement. The last movement ends with the basses playing pizzicato again, though this time as part of a full orchestral texture. In both the Sibelius and Stravinsky works, the winds had the leading role.
Conductor Ludovic Morlot, replacing David Robertson, directed the orchestra capably, confidently, and without drawing attention to himself all evening. The tempi were well chosen, and the balance of the instruments well designed and carried out. All in all this was a very impressive evening. There are only two remaining performances, January 12 and 13. Josefowicz is playing across the Atlantic next week.