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Maestro Alexander Shelley and NACO
Photo Credit: Dwayne Johnson
Review by Dave Richards
Toronto ON March 25th 2018
Composer Vivian Fung
Photo Credit: Charles Boudreau
Next on the program was Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 2 in F Major, Op. 102 with the Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg. The work was written for and dedicated to Shostakovich’s son Maxim who premiered the work when he was just 18. It is full of youthful exhuberance and vitality that both Giltburg and the orchestra displayed in abundance. I was particularly taken with the lyrically sensitive second movement in which lush strings collaborated in perfect balance with Giltburg’s delicate musical lines. At age 34, Giltburg has an international performing and recording career that is entirely justified based on last night’s performance. For an encore, he played Scriabin’s introspective Etude Op. 2 No. 1.
National Arts Centre Orchestra ushers in the first weekend of spring with Brahms, Shostakovich and a new Canadian work
Pianist Boris Giltburg
Photo Credit: Sasha Gusov
The National Arts Centre Orchestra came to Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall last night to perform a concert in the Toronto Symphony’s subscription series. The program set out to demonstrate once again that the NACO is indeed a world-class orchestra capable of outstanding performances of great orchestral repertoire. Under the leadership of Music Director Alexander Shelley, it accomplished its goal and then some with the music of Brahms, Shostakovich and a new work by one of Canada’s most celebrated contemporary composers, Vivian Fung.
On a cool spring day in which hundreds of thousands of young people gathered in Washington and cities around the world to protest gun violence, it was impossible for me to separate life from art. I couldn’t help looking for relevance in the music to the events of the day. Every time I heard the soulful sounds of the trombones in the Brahms symphony, the cacophony of scraps of tunes in Fung’s new work, or the youthful energy of the Shostakovich concerto, I was reminded that today was a momentous day, one that we will no doubt look back on decades from now.
The program opened with Vivian Fung’s Earworms, a work that comments on the barrage of divergent stimuli bombarding us daily. She used quotations from Charles Ives, Maurice Ravel, Lady Gaga, and even Wheels on the Bus as examples of tunes that keep swirling around in her ears – hence the term ‘earworms’. Fung’s music isn’t new to Toronto audiences. Her Dust Devils was featured in the TSO’s recent New Creations Festival. Just a year ago, her Launch: Sesquie for Canada’s 150th was performed by the TSO and her Violin Concerto No. 2 was performed by Jonathan Crow and the Toronto Symphony a few seasons back. Although Earworms was meant to be whimsical, and yes, there was a moment of laughter in the audience when Wheels on the Bus rang out from the glockenspiel, nevertheless, the prime energy in the music for me was one of restless anxiety, not out of character with the day’s events.
Following intermission came the main event of the program, Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major. This work written, in a span of a few months in 1877 while Brahms enjoyed a country retreat, seems to embody the essence of spring’s rebirth and hope in its lilting melodies, albeit restrained by the brooding sounds of lower brass whose dissonant chords refuse to allow the optimism of spring to abound unabated. Brahms would never have conceded that his purely ‘absolute’ music had anything to do with anything extra-musical, but listeners have been hearing pastoral qualities in it since it was first performed. The NACO was at its finest in this work. As a friend of mine remarked following the concert, “Now that was a Brahms to remember…for all the right reasons!” Conductor Shelley, working without a score, got to the heart of the music, the brightness of the major keys with their gracious melodies, darkened by emotional shades of minor. The joyous finale had a rapturous energy.
And so, on this fresh spring day, Brahms’ “pastoral” music, Shostakovich’s youthful zeal, and Fung’s cacophonic energy took me back to the day’s events and the youthful spirit of hope for a more peaceful world.
The Toronto Symphony's season continues this week with concerts on Wednesday March 27th and 28th at Roy Thomson Hall featuring guest conductor Stéphane Denève and pianist Lars Vogt in a concert of music by Brahms and Rachmaninoff.