Review by David Richards

​Toronto ON November 26th 2017

Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles and TSO;  Photo credit: Jag Gundu

Whether the work spoke of the personal life story of Gustav Mahler or the universal inevitability of fate, the sublimity of the music was there for each and every listener to feel at a deep and profound level. Maestro Runnicles and the TSO are to be congratulated!

As has been the custom for Canada’s 150th, last night's concert began with a Sesquie. The two-minute composition entitled Step Up by Abigail Richardson-Schulte was among the more satisfying and conveyed the spirit of Canadians coming to each other’s aid in a time of need.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra will continue its November pattern of themed concerts in the next week. With Vaughan Williams and Mahler now behind them, the orchestra will present four performances of the complete film Home Alone  with the music of John Williams from Thursday November 30th to Saturday December 2nd. Thereafter from Tuesday December 5th through Thursday December 7th, world renowned operatic conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson will conduct a program entitled 'Best of Tchaikovsky' featuring principal cellist Joseph Johnson.

Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles and TSO;  Photo credit: Jag Gundu

From the pulsing down-bows of the double basses and cellos, one could imagine the turn-of-the-century German army preparing for the inevitable. Was Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 a prophetically autobiographical tragedy or did it have a more universal meaning? In the end, it is up to the listener to draw one’s own conclusions about this massive work. Last night’s TSO performance under the direction of guest conductor Donald Runnicles had to have left any thoughtful listener emotionally drained. The stage of Roy Thomson Hall held over one hundred musicians including sixty-some string players; the orchestra filled the hall with almost ninety minutes of unrelentingly music that was at once both powerful and emotional.

Maestro Runnicles is well versed in the music of Mahler and his forerunners such as Wagner. Runnicles has conducted several complete Ring Cycles and will conduct yet another with the San Francisco Opera this spring. The Scottish conductor assumes a large presence on stage. Conducting left-handed, he was clear in both his musical and dramatic intentions. His wide-armed gestures at times demanded powerful playing and at other times, subtly gentler strokes implored a warmth and expressiveness. He was rewarded with some of the most responsive playing I have heard from the orchestra this year. Each movement of the symphony carried the listener through to its inevitably tragic conclusion. The work required cohesive playing and a thorough understanding of the music from each and every player. Each section of the orchestra was vital. The sweet sounds of the woodwinds in the interlude  before the second theme in the first movement provided the much needed contrast to the opening section characterized by menacing percussion, penetrating brass, and marcato strings. The violins in ‘Alma’s theme’ had a graceful warmth. The work exposed the soloistic brilliance of each principal player: horn, tuba, trumpet, oboe, bassoon, flute and clarinet each added to the collage of musical colour. The gigantic hammer, cymbals, timpani, snare drum, triangles, tam-tam, cow-bells, and celeste each had a purpose in the massive four-movement odyssey. 

Toronto Symphony finds the drama in Mahler’s Symphony No. 6​


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