Music reviews of the finest concerts in Toronto and beyond!
- ​symphonic, choral, opera, chamber, jazz and period music​ -

LONDON CALLING!: Toronto Summer Music Festival answers the call…

Tenor Nicholas Phan, conductor Joseph Swenson, Neil Deland

with the TSM Festival Strings; ​Photo by James M. Ireland

Review by David Richards
Toronto July 15, 2016

Toronto Summer Music Festival opened its doors to its 11th consecutive season last night with a spine-tingling program of 20th century English music. For the past six years, Artistic Director Douglas McNabney has both opened Koerner Hall with its marvelous acoustics to summer audiences and enlivened the musical landscape of the city with instrumentalists and singers from North America and beyond.

This summer McNabney has put together a series of programs representative of the musical traditions of Great Britain. For the next three weeks, Toronto audiences will feast on great summer music as experienced in London for the past two hundred years. With music from the Baroque to the 20th century British pop music invasion, the festival will feature international artists, professional mentors and the Toronto Summer Music Academy (TSMA) in chamber music, opera, choral and orchestral music.

Last night’s program was one that highlighted the TSMA which includes 18 string players honing their chamber music skills at the festival. The concert began with Gustav Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite Op. 29, No. 2, a galloping, rollicking work comprising brilliant arrangements of folk material that Holst originally put together for the school orchestra where he taught for most of his career. Conductor Joseph Swenson didn’t let up on the whirlwind tempos for the young orchestra in a lively and energetic performance. Concert master Shane Kim’s solo work in the third movement displayed a warm and mature sound.

The Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op. 31 by Benjamin Britten followed with a stunning and dramatic interpretation by the American tenor Nicholas Phan and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s principal horn, Neil Deland. From the opening notes of the Prologue for solo horn, it was clear that this would be no ordinary performance. Deland is a virtuosic and consummate artist. Phan sang with warmth and expression ranging from tenderness to extraordinary power. He brought out the full meaning of each of the night-themed poems taken from five centuries of English literature. Phan is a natural for Britten’s tenor repertoire and perhaps the next Peter Pears!

The second half of the program included the festival’s professional mentors in the orchestra, doubling its size for Michael Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra. The mentors added a dimension of maturity to the sound and scope of contrasts that abound in this work. Swenson brought out a lavish richness in the broad sweeping lines of the combined orchestras.

The program concluded with the uplifting Introduction and Allegro Op. 47 by the renowned English romantic composer, Edward Elgar. Featuring the electrifying Parker String Quartet, this work took the opening night concert to a thrilling climax. The Grammy-Award-winning quartet sparkled with a penetrating sound and a palpitating rhythmic intensity resulting in wonderful contrasts to the ‘tutti’ sections of this quasi ‘concerto-grosso’ like work.

The students of the TSMA, their professional mentors, and the internationally acclaimed guest soloists created a magical combination of youthful verve and artistry that will continue for three weeks as the Toronto Summer Music Festival unfolds. Chamber music, solo concerts, masterclasses, opera and orchestral music will fill the city’s finest concert halls. Next up is tonight’s concert by the Parker String Quartet at the University of Toronto’s Walter Hall. For information on all Toronto Summer Music Festival performances visit