Guest Conductor Michael Francis and the TSO; photo credit Jag Gundu
Review by David Richards
Toronto ON January 14th 2017
January brings the best of the TSO and Mozart!
There is something magical about the fresh and hopeful spirit that each new year brings with it. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s annual January tradition of ushering the year in with the fresh and hopeful sounds of Mozart is an uplifting one. The Mozart@261 Festival, this year’s celebration, includes another star-studded array of solo performers to compliment the orchestra. Mozart@261 Festival has the added bonus of the superb acoustics and smaller European concert house feel of Koerner Hall. Audiences need wait no longer to hear the TSO in what has been hailed as Canada’s finest concert venue.
Mozart@261 Festival opened earlier this week with Music Director and Co-curator of the Festival, Peter Oundjian holding the baton for the young Canadian violinist Kurson Leong and Leonid Nediak, the prodigious fourteen-year-old pianist from Kingston, Ontario. Wednesday’s performance included a pre-concert performance by the TSO Chamber Soloists.
Last night in the second program of the festival, the brilliant young British conductor Michael Francis and TSO’s perennial favourite pianist Emanuel Ax took centre stage with the orchestra, reduced in size to forty players. The program was made up of a symphony and two piano concertos. These works took the audience through a productive period in Mozart’s life from 1779 to 1885 following his disastrous trip to Paris, through to the years in which he wrote and performed piano concertos with unparalleled popularity in Vienna.
After a captivating introduction by Francis to this period in Mozart’s life and to the three works to be performed, we heard the first sounds of Symphony No. 33 in B-flat Major, K. 319. From the opening chord and the staccato scales to follow, one could immediately hear a distinctly refined presence of sound. The orchestra was obviously enjoying the venue. This lightly scored work with just two oboes, two bassoons, two horns and strings written in 1779, has the upbeat feel of a concert overture. The first movement dances. The second has a sentimental tunefulness. The third movement, a minuet added for a performance in Vienna years later, sets up the energetic, high-spirited finale. Francis allowed the orchestra to bring out all of the work’s playful character.
Michael Francis, Emanuel Ax and the TSO; photo credit Jag Gundu
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Emanuel Ax, the Ukrainian born pianist raised in Winnipeg prior to his family moving to New York City, is renowned for his Mozart interpretations. The first of the two concertos performed was Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 14 in E-flat Major, K. 449. The elegant opening and subsequent sudden changes in mood are reminiscent of operatic themes. Ax performed with a clarity and unforced sonority that cut through the sensitive sounds of the strings effortlessly. Each note was suggestive of a genuine pearl. He ‘frolickingly’ played cat and mouse with the orchestra until his sparkling cadenza summarized the movement’s thematic material. It was great fun to see Ax, Francis and the orchestra thoroughly enjoying themselves. The second movement with its understated elegant and melodious spirit was as beautiful as one could imagine a pastoral landscape painting. And to no-one’s surprise, Francis and Ax brought out all the jovial wit of the energetic finale in fine style!
The Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat Major, K. 482 was for this listener, the highlight of the concert. This concerto was the first in which Mozart added clarinets to his orchestration. With two trumpets and timpani added to the winds, there was a scope for drama not lost on Mozart. The orchestra and soloist brought a joyful and celebratory spirit to the performance beginning with the fanfare like opening. When Ax entered with his clear articulation of the ornamented theme, there was a sparkle in every note. Dramatic shifts followed but ultimately returned to the over-riding elegance and joy of the work. The second movement, the only movement of the concert in a minor key, was reminiscent of a pair of swans floating by on a misty pond. The winds and the string quintet played exquisitely. It was no wonder that there was a call for an encore in 1785, the year in which this movement was first performed. The colourful finale highlighted the wonderful virtuosity of each of the wind soloists both singularly and in ensemble.
Toronto concert goers have another opportunity to hear this uplifting and fabulous program tonight at 8pm in Koerner Hall. Their final opportunities to hear the TSO playing Mozart in Koerner Hall as part of the Mozart@261 Festival will be next week on Wednesday January 18th and Friday January 20th when Conductor/Festival Co-curator Bernard Labadie and violinist Isabelle Faust will join the orchestra in a program that includes the famous Prague Symphony.