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The Toronto Symphony Orchestra opened its 2017-18 concert season last night with a performance celebrating Canadian creativity and artistry. This is to be Peter Oundjian’s final season as Music Director and he has curated a year of spectacular programs. Last night’s concert was the first. It included Oscar-winning composer Mychael Danna, and two of the world’s leading performing artists, violinist James Ehnes and pianist Jan Lisiecki, ​the latter being added to the program as a surprise for both the maestro and the audience.

​​It was only appropriate that this Canadian celebration should begin with the National Anthem and a Sesqui  for Canada’s 150th. O Canada was played and sung with opening night ferver. The Sesquie, a two-minute fanfare by Derek Charke entitled Élan and co-commissioned by the TSO and the Saskatchewan Symphony Orchestra, was a dazzling display of rhythmic drive and syncopation.

The Suite from Life of Pi had been featured in the marketing of the program with the bengal tiger staring out from brochures and posters. Mychael Danna was commissioned by the TSO to write a suite based on his Oscar-winning film score. He brought integrity to the score by utilizing musical sources and performers from the film: large orchestra, Indian singer, a northern Indian transverse flute called a bansuri, a south Indian tambourine called a kanjira, and a free bass accordion. Danna is a master at bringing together diverse musical languages. The music embraced the emotional journey of the film’s spiritual themes. My eyes welled up with tears in the lullaby sung by Bombay Jayashri, the vocalist from India who had collaborated with Danna in the film. V. Selvaganesh, also from India, added his own rhythmic colours with his flying fingers on the tambourine-like instrument. The iconic Canadian accordionist Joe Macerollo delivered haunting sounds and ferociously stormy effects. Jatinder Parkash, yet another performer from the film, created evocative melodies on his collection of bansuri flutes.

During intermission, broadcaster Tom Allen interviewed Danna and Life of Pi Director, Ang Lee in an engaging discussion of the collaborative and grueling task of composing the music for the film. Lee and Danna worked closely as a team at the service of the film. With the serious themes in the film, it was up to the music to support the emotional content while providing levity. Danna said he found writing music meant to sound simple to be very difficult. 

Review by David Richards
Toronto ON September 20 2017

One could have gone home happy at this point, except for the fact that programmed in the second half of the concert was James Ehnes, one of the world’s finest violinists who also happens to be Canadian. He performed two masterpieces of the Romantic repertoire, Ernest Chausson’s Poѐme for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 25 and Camille Saint-Saёn’s Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 28. In the first work, it was Ehnes' lyrical intensity that carried the dark emotionality of the music. In the second, Ehnes dazzled the audience with his musical acrobatics while drawing from his instrument a deep and rich resonance.

Instead of offering a short virtuosic morsel as an encore, Ehnes invited Canadian superstar pianist Jan Lisiecki to join him on-stage from the audience. As a surprise gift to Maestro Oundjian, they both sat down at an upright piano and performed Anton Dvorak’s barn-burner, Slavonic Dance No. 8. As convincing as it was, it may be the first and last time that we hear the Ehnes /Lisiecki piano duo. How delightful for this audience that their schedules intersected.

Danna's process of creating the suite from the film score was anything but simple. The music had to tell the story of the two hour film in just twenty minutes. It would have been impossible to fit on stage all of the instruments used in the film. Furthermore, the music for the film had been written for the studio and was recorded in a dozen countries over a two year time span.  Danna said that he was very happy with the outcome of last evening's performance. He complimented the TSO as the finest orchestra he has worked with. They, along with the guest performers effectively captured the film's sonorites. 

In an interview, Danna revealed that three of his recently completed projects, two of which were screened at TIFF, are about to be released. The mini-series, Alias Grace, will be broadcast by CBC beginning September 25th; the animated film, The Breadwinner, is due to be released this fall; and The Man Who Invented Christmas, a film inspired by Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, will be released on November 22nd. 

Opening night concluded with a stunning performance of Igor Stravinsky’s Suite from The Firebird (1919 revision). The five movements from the ballet gave the orchestra a chance to show all the colours and splendid sounds of Stravinsky’s energy-filled music. Oundjian has programmed his favourite music in this his final season, and The Firebird ranks high on his list. The orchestra responded with joy and vigour.

The first week of the season continues on Friday and Saturday evenings at Roy Thomson Hall with the orchestra paying tribute to yet another Canadian musical icon. The TSO will honour Glenn Gould with a newly commissioned work, and with Jan Lisiecki recreating Gould's infamous performance of Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1. This was the work that Gould  performed in 1962 with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic using tempos considered far too slow. Indeed, Bernstein announced before the performance began that he had to disassociate himself form Gould’s interpretation of the score. Peter Oundjian will conduct. Canadian actor Colm Feore will host the performance. Will the controversial tempi of Gould find their way into Lisiecki's performance?

Peter Oundjian, James Ehnes, Jan Lisiecki

Photo Credit: Jag Gundu

Canadian superstars open Toronto Symphony Orchestra's 2017/2018 season!

Violinist James Ehnes, Maestro Peter Oundjian and TSO

Photo Credit: Jag Gundu

TSO with Music Director Peter Oundjian and Life of Pi soloists

Photo Credit: Jag Gundu

Life of Pi Director Ang Lee with composer Mychael Danna

Photo Credit: Jag Gundu