Mahler and Mozart: A Toronto Symphony performance for the ages!

Emanuel Ax, Peter Oundjian, TSO;  Photo credit: Nick Wons

​​Review by David Richards

Toronto ON June 24th 2018

This month has given Toronto a very special treat with the last concerts of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra under the leadership of Peter Oundjian as Music Director. He will be completing his fourteen-year tenure next week. He has curated programs for the month that have reflected his own love and aspirations. 

Throughout the span of his leadership, Oundjian has conducted most if not all of Mahler’s great symphonies. He began his tenure with Mahler’s 1st. He had not performed Symphony No. 9 with the TSO until this week. He had conducted the work at Yale University this past April and then with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in his final concert there as Music Director.

The work is not new to Toronto audiences. It had been mounted by the TSO ten times since its Toronto première in 1960 under the baton of Walter Susskind. It had also been on the European tour repertoire of 1986 led by Sir Andrew Davis. Davis again led the orchestra in performances of it in its most recent revival in May, 2014.

Lat night, the orchestra gave a performance for the ages, holding the audience on every note for an hour and twenty-five minutes. Every principal player added virtuosic performances and the ninety-five members of the orchestra played as an ensemble with power, majesty and sensitivity throughout.

It was in the recurring motif, two descending notes separated by a tone and sometimes a semi-tone, that the music grabbed hold of me. The motif had a wistful melancholy about it as though someone were sighing while reflecting on an emotion-filled past. It returned after huge climaxes like ruminations on important life events. It has been said that the music was a personal emotional outpouring for Mahler’s loss of his daughter and his realization of his own mortality. Others have said that it was about the death of Romantic and tonal music with the rise of figures like Berg, Stravinsky and Schoenberg. I suspect that the work holds a special meaning for Oundjian as he reflects on his tenure in Toronto, the city where he was born. The closing moments of the work couldn’t have had more poignancy. In the sustained pianissimo, there was a tension with the knowledge that the end was near, an ending that nobody wanted to happen.

The concert opened with a different kind of nostalgia. In the first week of Oundjian’s tenure in September 2004, Emanuel Ax performed with the symphony. He has been a regular performer and friend of the TSO and Toronto since. It was very fitting that he be a part of Oundjian’s farewell party. He performed one of Mozart’s most sublime concertos, Piano Concerto No. 17 in G Major, K.453.  The orchestra and soloist played as one. The music sparkled. Phrases grew and finished with a light touch. The TSO was pared down a Mozartian size. Strings were sensitive to every nuance; winds added spectacular colour. There was a balance between piano and orchestra that is not easy to achieve at Roy Thomson Hall. The clarity of Ax’s playing came through the delicate passages without any overplaying.

On Tuesday June 26th 2018 at 8pm, Christopher Plummer  will join the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Peter Oundjian for a program entitled Christopher Plummer's Symphonic Shakespeare. The TSO will conclude its season and Peter Oundjian will give his final performances as Music Director on Thursday June 28th at 8pm, Friday June 29th at 8pm and Saturday June 30th at 7pm. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 will be performed with soprano Kirsten MacKinnon, mezzo-soprano Lauren Segal, tenor Andrew Haji, baritone Tyler Duncan and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.

Emanuel Ax, Peter Oundjian, TSO;  Photo credit: Nick Wons


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