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The 25 year-old pianist Cho did not disappoint. From the opening introductory phrase played without orchestra, the keys sang out. His lyrical approach to the music extended to the virtuosic scale-passages that followed. He balanced the orchestra in volume and matched their phrasing with his careful playing. Conductor Davis and the orchestra deserve credit for maintaining a fine balance between piano and orchestra. I was especially impressed by the ensemble playing of the strings in the second movement. Cho’s first movement cadenza was electrifying. The third movement had a jubilant spirit that would be hard to rival, playing back and forth with the orchestra with frantic energy and then suddenly with serene lyricism all leading to a feverish coda of excitement. Cho returned for an encore, Franz Schubert’s Moment Musical in F minor Op. 94 No. 3 (D.780).

It’s hard to believe that this delightful music could have been created in a time when Beethoven was suffering from recurring fevers, painful abscesses, headaches, vomiting and diarrhea as well as the deterioration of his hearing, not to mention the emotional turmoil of losing the hoped-for love of his life, Countess Josephine Dehm. Beethoven’s positive spirit was never more evident than in this concerto.

I could have gone home satisfied following the Concerto, but the main event following intermission was Beethoven’s glorious Symphony No. 7 in A Major, op. 92. And leaving early would have meant missing what has long been my favourite of his symphonies. The long introduction built gripping tension with its modulations, scale passages, large chords and lyrical interludes by the woodwinds. I loved the woodwind playing in these passages and throughout the symphony. Like most audiences since its first performances, the second movement moves me every time I hear it. The way it builds from the low strings adding second violins, first violins and then woodwinds in succession before filling the hall with the power of the full orchestra is totally absorbing. Beethoven’s countermelodies are magical. The finale is one of the most uplifting movements in the repertoire, all built on a propulsive rhythmic device with wonderful energy. Davis let loose the brass and timpani in fanfare like passages adding to the driving freneticism. It’s no wonder that the work was premiered in a concert to lift the spirits of soldiers wounded in a recent battle. It certainly lifted my spirits last night. 

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven @250 celebration continues through winter and spring with four symphonies, four concertos, two overtures and one Violin Romance in four concerts. Guests at these programs include Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (February 19), pianist Jan Lisiecki (April 1-5), violinist Augustin Hadelich (May 22-23) and violinist James Ehnes (June 10-14)

Next week, the TSO presents an all Mozart program: his Symphony No. 39 and Requiem. The orchestra, conducted by Interim Artistic Director Sir Andrew Davis, will be joined by Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and soloists Jenavieve Moore, soprano; Jillian Bonner, mezzo-soprano; Charles Sy, tenor; and Trevor Eliot Bowes, bass.

Pianist Seong-Jin Cho with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra 
Photo credit: Jag Gundu

Beethoven’s 250th begins its celebratory year with the Toronto Symphony!​

Interim Music Director, Sir Andrew Davis, pianist Seong-Jin Cho and ​Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Photo credit: Jag Gundu

Review by David Richards
Toronto ON January 12th 2019

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra began the new year this past week with concerts celebrating 250 years since the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, born on December 16th or 17th 1770. This was the first of a series of all-Beethoven concerts at Roy Thomson Hall by the TSO through 2020. It was conducted by Interim Music Director Sir Andrew Davis and featured the brilliant young South Korean pianist, Seong-Jin Cho. A close to sell-out audience heard Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, Concerto No. 4 and his King Stephen Overture, three works composed in two of the most fertile periods of Beethoven’s creative life.

Now before I get to the concert, I would like to relay an anecdote I came across very recently that should make Beethoven’s life seem a little less remote than 250 years might suggest.

"The great British cellist, Steven Isserlis, a very active globe-trotting soloist who will be in Ottawa on April 17 2020, was born into a very musical family in 1958. His grandfather, pianist Julius Isserlis, a Russian Jew, was one of twelve musicians allowed to leave Russia in the 1920's to promote Russian culture, but he never returned. Upon arrival in Vienna in 1922, Steven’s grandfather found a flat, but the 102-year-old landlady refused to take in a musician because her aunt had had a previous musician tenant who was noisy and would spit on the floor – this tenant was no other than Ludwig van Beethoven!" 

Suddenly, the years since Beethoven lived have shrunk to just three lifetimes.

The concert began with Beethoven’s King Stephen Overture, a festive overture written for a play of the same name for the opening of the New Theatre in Pest, Hungary. In the spirit of celebration, it offered last night’s concert and indeed the year of Beethoven, a stirring opener. The music followed the usual script for concert overtures with a serious declamatory opening, followed by a main theme, leading to a rousing version of the theme that transports the music to a joyful conclusion. Cleverly, Beethoven mixes in snippets of his “Ode to Joy” finale of his Ninth Symphony yet to be written. The music, while not on the “A” list of Beethoven’s works, nevertheless worked in setting an energetic tone for the concert.

As the stage was re-set for the piano concerto to follow, Assistant Principal violist Theresa Rudolph gave a personal introduction to the rest of the program. In describing her own musical family background, she humbly omitted to mention that her father is a member of the percussion section of TSO.

It has been almost five years since pianist Seong-Jin Cho won the Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw. TSO audiences have been anticipating his first appearance with the orchestra since that time. This was the same competition in which two Canadians were finalists, an unprecedented feat for this country. Charles Richard-Hamelin was the 2nd place winner and Tony Yike Yang at age 15 came in 5th. It was fitting that Cho would perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58, the most poetic of Beethoven's five piano concertos.  His Chopin recordings display a  heart-felt lyricism.