Louis Lortie, Sir Andrew Davis and TSO; Photo credit: Jag Gundu

Programmatically, the evening with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra was definitely bottom heavy. Chan Ka-Nin’s 2 minute Sesquie for Canada’s 150th Celebration and Cesar Franck’s 15 minute Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra comprised barely the length of a movement of Mahler’s much longer 75 minute Seventh Symphony. And yet under the masterful hands (sans baton) of Sir Andrew Davis, there was a terrific sense of balance between instruments and between the variety of characters and moods that proliferate within Franck and Mahler’s symphonic works. 

Co-commissioned by the Toronto Symphony along with Sinfonia Toronto, Chan Ka Nin’s My Most Beautiful, Wonderful, Terrific, Amazing, Fantastic, Magnificent Homeland is his personal tribute to Canada, his homeland. Davis matches Chan’s optimism with a brisk and energetic tempo of his own and also renders the normally heavier-footed quote from the National Anthem O Canada to a joyous sprint as part of a swirling whirlwind that is this short Sesquie.

Along with the Canadian piano virtuoso Louis Lortie, Sir Andrew Davis delivered a spectacular interpretation of Franck’s ‘special little piece’, as he called it, the Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra. Here, there was keen attention to the balance between the piano and the orchestra. The piece begins much like the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. The orchestra plays the role of an enraged beast, spiteful and inconsolable. Quietly yet persistently, the piano enters with a sighing theme, attempting to tame and console the fiend. Lortie’s execution here was full of delicacy and sensitivity. Soon, Franck’s music takes on a more traditional approach to concerto writing, where the piano part, having befriended the beast, is in constant, complimentary dialogue with the orchestra. One is reminded of the writing of Mendelssohn and Saint-Saens. Occasionally, the bravura of the piano part enters the realm of Liszt but never for long, as Franck soon veers into a new variation, manipulating the opening theme through transformations of tonality and rhythm. Lortie delivered the virtuosic and brilliant piece with temperance and fervour, and collaborated not only with the conductor but also with his fellow musicians on stage as though he were playing chamber music. Lortie and Davis’ remarkable collaboration does not end here, as they will be performing Saint-Saen’s Piano Concerto No. 4 next week (May 24-25 at 7.30 and 8.00pm respectively).

Despite being often perceived as the ‘ugly duckling’ of Mahler’s symphonies, his Seventh is full of innovations such as the use of the tenor horn in the first movement, and of the guitar and mandolin in the 4th movement, the writing is dramatic and reminiscent of Wagner at times, and with Sir Andrew Davis at the helm, the TSO captured every character, mood, and essence of Mahler’s postmodern work with aplomb. Beginning with a somber funeral march and a forlorn tenor horn solo introduction, the first movement is dark and brooding but it soon gathers momentum and it is not long before the wind behind the pillowing sails of a ship are in full power. Mahler contrasts this with the second theme played by the strings, which is imbued with passion. Throughout many of his symphonic works, there are many moments where he builds momentum, gathers volume and dynamic, and just as the music reaches a climax, there is a sudden drop as if the breath is snatched from the lungs. He commits to this in the reinstatement of the funeral march, this time played by the bass.

Mahler’s Seventh, consisting of 5 movements, is structured with the three inner movements forming a core. These central movements are structured by a scherzo sandwiched by 2 Nachtmusik’s (Night Music). The Nachtmusik’s are intimate pieces of music, filled with horn calls, bird songs, mysterious ‘sounds of the night’ emitted in the orchestra by the tam-tam, and cow bells, serenades by the strings, and a sense of wonder. They are inspired by the German Romantic poetry of Josef von Eichendorff, who is most well-known for themes and motifs of wandering, transience and nostalgia. There is definitely an abundance of this in these movements, and the TSO deftly handles the many difficult solos and passages that prevail throughout the work. Special mention to Leslie Dawn Knowles (violin) and Mark Tetreault (tuba) who doubled as mandolin and guitar players respectively during the Nachtmusik II.

The Finale movement, in Rondo form, is an especially wild hurricane of varied material that would often only run for about 30 seconds before a new idea is thrown out, sometimes in a different key. Nevertheless, Sir Andrew Davis manages to navigate the audience through each section, from an open allusion to Wagner’s overture to Die Meistersinger, to the re-introduction of the March theme from the first movement albeit now in a major key, all the time keeping the orchestra united, blazing with energy and nuance.

It was a sublime interpretation of an incredible symphonic work and the audience responded with a standing ovation and much applause. The TSO, headed by Sir Andrew Davis portrayed the intricacies of this complicated work as well as the others in the program with an ear for balance, an eye for detail, and a spirit of utter commitment to making great music come alive. 

​​by Chris Au
oronto ON May 17th 2019

TSO & Sir Andrew Davis exude exquisite balance


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