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Ralph Vaughan Williams died almost sixty years ago, but his music was very much alive yesterday at Roy Thomson Hall. The Toronto Symphony, in a matinee performance (there should be more of these), devoted an entire program to his music. Music Director Peter Oundjian, in his final season at the orchestra’s helm, decided to put together a concert of one of his favourite composers. He came by his love of Vaughan Williams honestly, having studied in the very halls haunted by the composer’s twenty years there as a professor. Indeed, while Oundjian was studying at the Royal College of Music in London, Vaughan Williams 100th birthday was celebrated with classes cancelled and replaced by a marathon of Vaughan Williams’ music.
Yesterday’s concert was a showcase of musical stars including some of the orchestra’s finest soloists. Principal oboist Sarah Jeffrey and principal violist Teng Li were both brilliant as they stepped in front of the orchestra. Concert master Jonathan Crow and principal flutist Kelly Zimba added poignantly uplifting moments from their places within the orchestra. Guest artists included the renowned Canadian piano icon Louis Lortie, Toronto’s Elmer Iseler Singers, and four internationally acclaimed singers: soprano Carla Huhtanen, mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo, tenor Lawrence Wiliford, and baritone Tyler Duncan.
The concert began with the often heard Fantasia on “Greensleeves”. Opening with a hauntingly beautiful flute solo and harp arpeggios, the theme entered with the warmth and tenderness of the viola section. The transcending flute interlude was transforming. The short work was an appetizer for the orchestral colours, beautiful harmonies, and tuneful melodies to come in the next two hours.
In the Concerto in A Minor for Oboe and String Orchestra, Sarah Jeffrey found all of the charm in this pastoral musical story with moments of loneliness, playfulness and contemplation. Jeffrey’s expressive playing was on full display as was her virtuosic technique, especially in the third movement’s wild moments.
For this listener, Serenade to Music is a pinnacle in Vaughan Williams music. Written for 16 soloists, and large orchestra and taking its text from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, it extols music’s effect on the soul and its affinity to night- time’s stillness. The romantic harmonies, the soaring vocal lines and the orchestral colours are a combination that never fails to create a sense of wonder. Oundjian found the richness of the orchestral colours. His use of a small choir and four soloists, may not have been the composer’s intent, but the Elmer Iseler Singers and soloists Huhtanen, D’Angelo, Wiliford and Duncan gave convincing performances. Carla Huhtanen’s voice sparkled in the phrase “of sweet harmony”.
Principal Oboist Sarah Jeffrey and TSO; Photo credit: Jag Gundu
The Overture to “The Wasps” was the final work on the program. It provided some insight into another facet of Vaughan Williams, his theatrical writing. It was a tuneful, light-hearted conclusion to the concert’s penetrating look into the music of one of England’s most cherished composers.
Next up for the Toronto Symphony will be a program with pianist Angela Hewitt performing not one, but four concertos by Bach and Mozart. It will take place tomorrow night, Saturday, November 18th at Roy Thomson Hall, and will be repeated on Sunday, November 19th at the George Weston Recital Hall.
Principal Violist Teng Li, Elmer Iseler Singers, Music Director Peter Oundjian and TSO; Photo credit: Jag Gundu
Elmer Iseler Singers, Soloists and TSO; Photo credit: Jag Gundu
Pianist Louis Lortie, Music Director Peter Oundjian and TSO; Photo credit: Jag Gundu
Review by David Richards
Toronto ON November 16th 2017
Toronto Symphony celebrates the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams and showcases its own principal players!
The second half of the concert consisted of three more works, as varied as those of the first half. Flos Campi for Viola, Chamber Choir and Chamber Orchestra was a showcase for violist Teng Li. Her rich, warm sound on the 1703 Amati violin is seductive. Once again, the audience bathed in a sea of glorious harmonies and sonic textures, this time expressing both somber and sorrowful tones of the opening and progressing through to joyful grandeur. With the scaled back strings and solo wind players providing colourful moments, there was a wonderful balance between the vocal and instrumental forces that included a celeste.
The Piano Concerto in C was for me the least familiar work on the program. In his introduction, Oundjian indicated that the work’s lack of early acceptance may have in part been the result of a pianist not fully prepared for the challenging score. Such was not the case yesterday. Pianist Louis Lortie is well known to Canadian and international audiences for his masterful technique and interpretive genius of music across the piano repertoire. The work was very different from everything else on the program. Its passionate journey came out of disturbing energy. The pastoral textures were replaced by an intensity of emotion that was palpitating. This is a work that is worthy of more listening.