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L’Histoire du Soldat (From left) Suzanne Roberts Smith, Jennifer Nichols, Derek Boyes; Photo credit: James Ireland

Revelations, Shakers, and a devil: TSO soloists play Copland, Stravinsky, and Messiaen at the Toronto Summer Music Festival

​​Review by Paul Merkley FRSC

Toronto ON July 20th 2018

L’Histoire du Soldat (From left) Suzanne Roberts Smith, Jennifer Nichols, Derek Boyes; Photo credit: James Ireland

Most of the players returned after intermission to perform another ballet, Stravinsky's L'histoire du soldat, written in Switzerland at the end of World War I, the aristocratic composer having forfeited his estates in the Russian Revolution. The work was designed for minimal forces, so that it could tour economically.

The narrator (effectively acted by Derek Notes) tells the story and, as the devil, interacts with the soldier (convincingly played by Suzanne Roberts Smith), who after paying the price for succumbing to the temptation of insider trading, beats the devil and rescues the princess (imaginatively choreographed and well danced by Jennifer Nichols).

Among the musicians, standout performances were undertaken by Crow, Charles Settle (percussion), and Andrew McCandlless, who plated the exciting, difficult passages of the cornet.

I am no longer the night owl I once was, but I could not resist staying for the late night encore, Messiaen's haunting Quartet for the end of Time, composed in a German prison camp for the musicians held there: violin (tonight Crow), cello (Julie Albers), clarinet (Jacques), and Natasha Paremski).
Messiaen's work represents a third style; it is unlike the American sound of Copland, and unlike Stravinsky's music with its short phrases, shifting meter, and dissonance arising from bitonality.

The textures of the quartet are French, including parallel writing like that of Debussy's first string quartet. The writing in octaves, between violin and cello, is unusual for this period because it places great emphasis on those pitches to the detriment of others.

The clarinet playing was superb, the dynamics well controlled and articulated, especially in the solo movement. The cello playing in its slow movement was sublime.

All in all it was a night to remember.

This evening the Toronto Summer Music Festival continued its theme of music written in times of war with two contrasting ballets: Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring, and Igor Stravinsky's L'histoire du soldat. Chamber music of the first half of the twentieth century is not often performed, and to hear it performed so well by the soloists of the TSO is a rare opportunity.

At the end of World War II, Martha Graham commissioned Copland to compose America's first prominent ballet. The story of a young pioneer couple beginning their married life is set to a beautiful score of fragile innocence, featuring variations on the Shaker hymn ‘Tis a gift to be simple, contrasted with short passages in the composer's own musical voice, made up of rich, complex harmonies sustained in the strings. She called the work Appalachian Spring, from a line from a poem.

What constitutes the effects that we call the American sound? I thought I had answered this sufficiently in my thirty years of teaching, but I found myself wondering about it again and again this evening as I listened, spellbound and deeply moved, to the exquisite performance. Clarinetist Miles Jaques could not have started the work with greater care or sensitivity; he found a tone that touched the heart.. The delicate textures on quiet instruments were achingly beautiful.

Does the American sound have to do with the way in which the instruments are used, the strings sustaining slow chords while the winds are set in relief? This is true also in works by Ives. Is it the harmonies, often based on fourths rather than thirds, a noble chordal fabric found also in repertoire as varied as Barber and the theme of Star Trek? Is it the lively rhythm that invites us to dance?

Perhaps the American sound is made of all of these elements and also something more. This performance, in which Jonathan Crow, violin, and Kelly Zumba, flute, played with distinction, opened the heart and the window to the Soul.