The 1930s was if nothing else a decade of dichotomies. There was both the rise of Hitler and the Great Depression. At the same time, these years encompassed great artistic and scientific achievements: Picasso, Salvador Dali and Georgia O’Keefe were redefining art; penicillin was being developed; the planet Pluto was discovered; and Bing Crosby, Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald were all turning popular American music on its ear.
Last night at Roy Thomson Hall, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra began the latest edition of its Decades Project, a series of concerts this month focusing on music of the 1930s. It was a spectacular evening of music by Hindemith, Berg and Walton along with a Sesquie for Canada’s 150th all directed by the newly appointed Interim Music Director Sir Andrew Davis.
The concert began with the Sesquie, a two-minute musical tribute to the first responders of last year’s Fort McMurray fire. The work, composed by Luc Martin, entitled Hero’s Fanfare seemed to embrace the calm before the fire with a lyrical trumpet solo, the fire’s explosive energy and then the aftermath of the tragedy with mellow sounds conveying the emotions of the life-changing losses.
Paul Hindemith’s Concert Music for Brass and Strings, Op. 50 was akin to a Baroque concerto grosso with a brass choir of 4 trumpets, 4 horns, 3 trombones and tuba, pitted against the strings. The brass section’s unity and power were compelling as was the unison string’s lyrical moments. This is a work worth hearing often. Davis decreased the number of violins and added extra cellos and violas to get a richly warm sound in the lower strings. It worked magnificently.
The TSO recently featured both its principal flute and principal cello in solo performances. Last night it was Concertmaster Jonathan Crow stepping out in front of the orchestra to perform Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto. This immensely challenging twelve-tone composition was remarkably engaging and extremely moving as it describes in music the life, death and transfiguration of the 18 year old daughter of Berg’s friend. Crow displayed in his virtuosity and emotional performance how very fortunate Toronto audiences are to have this remarkable artist in the first chair of the orchestra.
Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast rocks the house as the TSO teams up with the Mendelssohn Choir and Huddersfield Choral Society!
Jonathan Crow receiving flowers; Photo Credit: Nick Wons
While both Berg and Hindemith’s careers suffered as a result of the rise of Hitler in Germany and Austria with both of their music being condemned and placed on the list of “degenerate music”, it was the British composer William Walton, ironically, who composed a work that has parallels to the demise of the Nazis. Whether or not such a parallel was intended, the story of Belshazzar’s Feast tells the Biblical story of the downfall of the tyrannical Belshazzar and the freeing of the Jews from slavery in Babylon. The work remains a cornerstone of twentieth century choral orchestral repertoire.
Sir Andrew Davis found the emotional core of this musical drama. The combined forces of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the Huddersfield Choral Society from Leeds, England rocked the house with a tremendously powerful choral sound. Their hushed voices were heart-wrenching as they sang about the humiliation of the Jewish slaves. The large orchestra required for this work included organ, piano, two harps and a myriad of percussion instruments. Davis ensured that the music’s energy had real bite. British-Canadian baritone Alexander Dobson was superb as he sang his ‘a cappella’ recitatives with authority and dramatic fervour.
Baritone Alexander Dobson, Sir Andrew Davis and TSO; Photo Credit: Nick Wons
Review by David Richards
Toronto ON June 3rd 2017
Last night’s performance will be repeated this evening, Saturday June 3rd 2017 at Roy Thomson Hall at 8:00pm. Tomorrow, June 4th at 4:00pm, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir along with the Huddersfield Choral Society will perform a selection of choral classics at Yorkminster Park Church in a program entitled Choral Splendour.
As for Sir Andrew Davis, it has just been announced that he will take over as Interim Music Director from Peter Oundjian for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons by which time a new Music Director will be at the helm. Some of the orchestra’s proudest moments on tour, in concerts and in recordings have come with Davis in charge. He will provide the necessary smooth transition to the orchestra’s future.
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Sir Andrew Davis and TSO; Photo Credit: Nick Wons