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The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented its second of three concerts in the New Creations Festival last night at Roy Thomson Hall. This annual event in March is in its thirteenth season. This year, in the span of one week, there will have been seven world premiѐres, and ten works commissioned or co-commissioned by the TSO. How remarkable! The festival has been co-curated by Owen Pallett, a musician, composer and arranger who has worked in indie pop, classical, baroque pop, art rock, and experimental music.

​Last night’s event was more than a concert. It began in the lobby with a thirty minute improvisation by the forty member Element Choir conducted by Christine Duncan. During intermission, there was a chat with TSO Composer Advisor Gary Kulesha and composer Aaron Jay Kernis. Following the concert was a performance by Prince Nifty.

Violinist James Ehnes; Photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega

Following intermission, Daniel Okulitch teamed up with guest conductor André de Ridder in a riveting performance of the intensely personal work by Owen Pallett entitled Songs From an Island. It is a reflection on a journey into the world of sex and drug abuse. Okulitch, who had his debut with the TSO in Handel’s Messiah last December, was magnificent, finding all of the emotion in the words. He demonstrated that he is right at home with new music as he has shown repeatedly in recent operatic roles.

The concert itself had a distinctly Canadian feel throughout with two Canadian works and two Canadian superstar guests in violinist James Ehnes and bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch. It began with a Canada Mosaic fanfare by Harry Stafylakis entitled Shadows Radiant. The two minute work co-commissioned by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra acknowledged both the great accomplishments of our country and the shadows left behind that we don’t always see as readily. The first bars of O Canada twisted into something more reflective.

Next came the world premiѐre of  Violin Concerto by Aaron Jay Kernis. This was a monumental work and an even more impressive performance by James Ehnes. Ehnes was last here less than a year ago to perform Elgar’s Violin Concerto. Last night, he was completely at home with the contemporary score. Ehnes is a favourite of Toronto audiences and was in sync with the TSO, brilliantly conducted by Music Director Peter Oundjian. The moving work followed the structure of a classical three movement concerto with the first being the largest and most developed. Moods of deep sorrow permeated the music. The third movement, Toccatini was a brilliant virtuosic showpiece for Ehnes. The cadenza was a wild flurry of double-stops, arpeggios, and harmonics.

James Ehnes, Peter Oundjian and TSO; Photo credit: Arkan Zakharov 

Finally, de Ridder led the orchestra in the 2015 work by American composer Nico Muhly entitled Mixed Message.  This is a work with driving rhythms and large brass motifs contrasted with an extended violin solo played by Concertmaster Jonathan Crow and beautiful long lines in the cellos and English horn. To this listener, the musical disconnects seemed to portray how we don’t really listen or understand one another.

Kudos to the TSO for offering such a remarkable and innovative musical experience. The New Creations Festival will conclude on Saturday March 11th with the Kronos Quartet  joining the TSO. The program will include world premiѐres by Canadian composers Cassandra Miller and Nicole Lizée

Daniel Okulitch, André de Ridder and TSO; Photo credit: Arkan Zakharov 

New Creations, James Ehnes, Daniel Okulitch and TSO: a combination extraordinaire

Conductor Christine Ducan with Element Choir

Review by David Richards
Toronto ON March 8 2017