TORONTO CONCERT REVIEWS

Music reviews of the finest concerts in Toronto:
​symphonic, choral, opera, chamber, jazz and period music​

Review by David Richards

​Toronto ON January 27th 2018

Toronto Symphony Orchestra trumpets both new and familiar music with an emphasis on big!​

It has been a week of contrasts at the Toronto Symphony from last week’s Mozart Festival to  last night’s concert featuring Holst’s The Planets. Last week it was a small orchestra performing in the classically intimate Koerner Hall. This week, it was a hundred-piece orchestra filling Roy Thomson Hall with majestic sounds. Last week, it was Mozart’s classical ‘absolute’ music; this week each work was programmatic having extra-musical ideas imbedded therein. Within this week’s concert there was the contrast of two works, written only a few years apart, one of which had one performance in the first hundred years after its creation in 1908 while the other instantly became the signature work of the composer with countless performances over the same time span.


​Both Igor Stravinsky and Gustav Holst hold prominent places in the history of early 20th century music, but whereas Stravinsky departed from his Russian romantic roots to find his own voice, Holst was the flagbearer for late-romantic British music. Rounding out last night’s concert was the Toronto Symphony’s premiѐre of a trumpet concerto by Canadian composer John Estacio. Hopefully it won’t be another hundred years before it is heard again.

Stravinsky wrote his Funeral Song for Orchestra Op. 5 in tribute to his teacher and mentor, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. After its premiѐre performance in St. Petersburg in 1909, the score went missing for a hundred years. What a pity! The opening sounds of the basses followed by bassoons, cellos, violas and timpani represented a funeral durge expressing the utter despair of one who has lost a dear friend and father figure. The muted horn solo that penetrated the somber opening only heightened the sense of loss. As the work proceeded one could imagine a funeral procession passing by with different solo instruments acting as the characters. Guest conductor John Storgårds coaxed the orchestra to a convincing performance in the Canadian premiѐre of what Stravinsky himself called his best work before his 1910 Firebird.


It is always a celebration when one of the principals of the orchestra steps to the front of the stage to perform a concerto. Last night it was Principal Trumpet Andrew McCandless. He performed the new concerto of John Estacio co-commissioned by the Toronto Symphony. The first movement titled Triton’s Trumpet pictures the ocean from its calm stillness to the fury of huge storms. McCandless, with a subtle vibrato and a tone that sang in every register of the instrument, gave expression to each of the composer’s well-orchestrated ideas. The triple-tongued fanfares demonstrated his virtuosic technique. McCandless' musicality came through in the long melodies of the second movement. The dance-like third movement reminded me of ocean waves jumping on a brisk, sunny day. The audience response was as enthusiastic as any that I have heard for a soloist in some time.

Andrew McCandless, Guest Conductor John Storgårds and TSO
​Photo credit: Jag Gundu

The second half of the program was Gustav Holst’s monumental work, The Planets. As the thunderous volume rose in the opening movement entitled Mars, The Bringer of War, I could only think that this is the kind of sound that Roy Thomson Hall was meant for. The orchestra was made up of over one hundred players with two sets of timpani, six percussionists, sixteen brass players, organ, two harps, extra woodwinds and close to sixty string players. Wow! What a sound! Storgårds made sure that every ounce of energy came through. In the opening movement depicting the destruction of war, it was as if he was the field-marshall manning a howitzer himself. The National Arts Centre Orchestra is indeed fortunate to have the Finnish conductor as its Principal Guest Conductor this year.

The distinctive and familiar themes of the seven movements representing the planets known at the time were  performed convincingly. The orchestra was in fine form. The final movement Neptune, The Mystic featured the women of the Elmer Iseler Singers singing off stage in a wordless chorus of spirits disappearing into space. Their pure tones were the final sounds of this inspiring program.

It was noteworthy that the almost capacity audience of last night’s concert was much younger than is often the case. Congratulations to the Marketing Department for reaching out to a new demographic. The program will be repeated tonight, Saturday January 27 at 7:30pm at Roy Thomson Hall.   

Guest Conductor John Storgårds and TSO; ​Photo credit: Jag Gundu

Andrew McCandless, Guest Conductor John Storgårds and TSO
​Photo credit: Jag Gundu