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Not many people get a goodbye celebration at Roy Thomson Hall.  Such was the case last night for Peter Oundjian with the hall filled to the choir lofts with an adoring public including the Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell (Lieutenant Governor of Ontario), the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. TSO Music Director Peter Oundjian ended his remarkable fourteen years at the orchestra's helm as the TSO closed out its 2017/18 season. The sustained standing ovation by the sold-out hall was just the beginning of the show of love and appreciation for the music he has given and for what he has done for the orchestra, the city and the province.

​​In her remarks following the concert, Dowdeswell referred to Oundjian as a transformative leader, and a cultural ambassador who brought us music that touches our soul. The orchestra’s CEO Gary Hanson announced Oundjian’s honorary appointment as Conductor Emeritus. Oundjian responded saying it was the greatest honour of his life to be Music Director of the TSO. He thanked the engaged and faithful audience, the government for its support for touring with the orchestra and finally the musicians of whom close to half were hired by him. He specifically mentioned the leadership of the orchestra’s concert master, Jonathan Crow.

Oundjian chose to end his days in Toronto with a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125, one of the greatest musical masterpieces of all time. There isn’t much music out there that can create such an uplifting sense of joy and celebration – music of the highest order that though performed and recorded as much or more than any music, still packs a powerful freshness in the hands of great musicians.

Beethoven’s 9th is in many ways a reflection of Oundjian’s tenure. At the time of its writing, it was an expansion of the classical symphony. It was longer (seventy-five minutes); its expanded fourth movement added chorus and soloists; and the work required a larger orchestra with more percussion, four horns, a contra-bassoon and three trombones. Oundjian took over the Toronto Symphony in 2004, expanded the audience, added both Mozart and New Creations Festivals to the season and enticed the finest virtuosic performers to join the orchestra. The principals throughout the orchestra are on a par with those of the finest orchestras worldwide.

Miles Hearn, a bass in the TMC who many years ago played horn in the TSO, pointed out to me that a third movement solo in the 4th horn part is  played by the 1st horn in many orchestras because of its vast range. However, in last night’s performance, it was indeed the 4th horn Nicholas Hartman playing the solo that includes both a G below the bass clef staff and a scale that reaches A-flat above the treble clef staff – no easy feat if one is regularly playing in the usual low range of the 4th horn. Leaps of two octaves, and such a range was not a problem for Hartman. His playing was magnificent. Hartman, who joined the orchestra in 2017, is an example of the virtuosic performers who have been brought into the orchestra in Oundjian’s tenure.

The program began with stirring versions of God Save the Queen and O Canada. The second verse of O Canada with its upward modulation and thrilling a cappella sections gave goosebumps. The anthems were an appetizer to the inspiring choral-orchestral sounds yet to come.

The orchestra, choir and soloists gave an inspired performance of the Beethoven. If one wasn’t drawn in by the opening suspense created by the pianissimo tremolo in the strings in the first 8 bars, the thunderous tutti complete with fortissimo timpani roll 8 bars later would be sure to grab hold of one's attention. Indeed, the energy of that opening never let up throughout the entire first movement. Was it the positioning of the brass and percussion closer to the front of the stage that gave more presence to their sound? Was it simply that everyone was of one mind knowing that this was more than a concert? Indeed, it was a momentous occasion. I especially loved the work of the woodwinds in the Scherzo movement and the lyricism of the strings in the third movement.

Four of Canada’s finest singing stars of the operatic world formed the quartet. Baritone Tyler Duncan’s voice boomed as he sang his opening introduction to the famous “Ode to Joy”. Tenor Andrew Haji, a prize winner at this month’s Concours Musical International de Montréal, came next. Soprano Kirsten MacKinnon and mezzo-soprano Lauren Segal completed the quartet. ​

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir was in fine form. The full complement of 130 singers was on hand to create the ecstasy of the final movement in which Beethoven used Schiller’s poem reflecting the doctrine of Enlightenment that reason would lead to a utopian world with harmony and social justice. The TMC is always at its best in choral-orchestral masterpieces and last night was no exception. The hall was filled with energy and glorious sounds.  

The celebration of Peter Oundjian will undoubtedly be a springboard to the future for the TSO and the TMC who are both currently searching for new Music Directors. As a friend noted following the performance, the TSO has had many young, energetic and reasonably established conductors appearing on the stage in the past couple of years. Hopefully both organizations will be able to entice leaders of Oundjians calibre to bring their own spirit of renewal.  In the mean time, with Sir Andrew Davis (TSO) and David Fallis(TMC) stepping in as interim music directors, both organizations are in good hands. Furthermore, we can look forward toConductor Emeritus Peter Oundjian being back on the Roy Thomson Hall stage in 2020 to conduct Mahler’s 8th

Conductor Peter Oundjian; Photo credit: Nick Wons

MacKinnon, Segal, Haji, Duncan, Conductor Peter Oundjian; Photo credit: Nick Wons

​​Review by David Richards

Toronto ON July 1st 2018

Peter Oundjian's triumphant finale to his fourteen-year tenure with Toronto Symphony!