Music reviews of the finest concerts in Toronto and beyond!
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​​by David Richards
oronto ON September 20th 2019

Toronto Symphony Orchestra opens its new season with music from four centuries

Barbara Hannigan as Ophelia with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra
​Photo credit: Jag Gundu

The first half of the concert concluded with Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 96 in D Major, written in 1791 for one of his enormously successful performances in London. Hannigan, still conducting made the work sparkle with energy. Hannigan is nothing if not meticulous with her conducting preparation, to the point that she has her own set of parts for the music she conducts and notes the bowings and expressive marks for each player. I enjoyed the exquisitely playful balance between the strings and solo winds. The oboe solo in the 3rd movement made me want to return next week for Sarah Jeffrey’s performance with the orchestra.

In the second half of the program, Storgårds conducted.  The first work, by composer Brett Dean’s and librettist Matthew Jocelyn, was And once I played Ophelia for String Orchestra and Soprano. What a powerful piece of music and drama! Barbara Hannigan sang the role of the tormented Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a role she played in the opera by Dean. Here was a compilation of her own words and the words of others coming at her beginning with Hamlet’s line, “Get thee to a nunnery”. Her terrified reaction came through with gripping power. Later she reflected on all the confusing accusations, admonitions, self-doubt and her horrific emotional turmoil. Hannigan uses her voice as an instrument. She says that she detaches from the sounds and uses her technique to produce the music and dramatic effects she is looking for. At times her vocal sounds melted into the sounds of the strings. For me, this was the highlight of the night. I wanted more!

The new season for the Toronto Symphony opened last night with new faces in the orchestra and not one but two familiar faces sharing both the conducting and solo roles. Canadian soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan along with violinist and conductor John Storgårds both did double duty.  The concert contained emotionally charged music from the late 18th century Haydn to 21st century composers Dutilleux and Brett Dean.

The concert began with the acknowledgement of Indigenous land and Barbara Hannigan's lone voice beginning the singing of O Canada,  with the audience, the strings, brass and percussion joining in. What a thrilling way to open the new season!

Barbara Hannigan was the first to take the podium, leading the orchestra to a riveting performance of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, Op. 84. The person sitting beside my wife had a similar experience to my own first encounter with the music in a high school band. I never forgot the triumphant feeling when the horns came in with their powerful chords followed by the gentle  woodwind response. The same emotional response came over me again last night, over 50 years later.

John Storgårds began his evening as a violin soloist in Henri Dutilleux’s Sur le même accord: Nocturne for Violin and Orchestra. The ten-minute work, written for violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, contained both brilliantly virtuosic passages and lyrical moments. With Hannigan conducting, the orchestra seemed to find in the music those strange night sounds that can be both forboding and comforting. The atonal work (although centred on G) is based on just six notes. Dutilleux once said about the piece, “I wanted to write something to remind people how wonderful the soloist is…” He certainly succeeded. Storgårds was brilliant.​

John Storgårds and Barbara Hannigan with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra
​Photo credit: Jag Gundu

Finally, Storgårds concluded the concert with a thoroughly convincing performance of Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 3 in C Major, Op. 52. This was the sort of music I would have anticipated from Storgårds. In his last visit he conducted Gustav Holst’s Planets, another turn of the twentieth century work. He has recorded all of the symphonies of Sibelius and is right at home with the music of his country’s national hero. The orchestra responded with robust playing

I spoke to one of the new violinists in the orchestra shortly after her first rehearsal on Tuesday. She couldn’t hide her enthusiasm for her new ‘job’. Yolanda Bruno, one of CBC’s recent “Hot 30 Classical Musicians under 30”, brings a resumé that looks like that of a visiting solo artist. She said she was very impressed by the orchestra’s willingness to take risks. She said they brought a commitment to the first read-through of the Sibelius. No one was holding back. She called it a fabulous orchestra, and she should know, having appeared as soloist with the Montreal Symphony and L’Orchestre Métropolitain among others. She even has a new CD, The Wild Swans, set to be released in December. She said she is delighted to be here after a long hiring process that began in January.

I don’t think Bruno had the orchestra’s programming of such an eclectic offering of music in mind when she said she admired its “risk-taking”. However, Brett Dean, in an intermission conversation with CEO Matthew Loden, said that symphony orchestras must continually re-invent themselves to remain relevant. Adventurous programming such as last night’s offerings is certainly a step in that direction. More risks will lead to more and greater rewards.

This concert will be repeated Saturday, September 21, at 8pm. Next week, Donald Runnicles will conduct a program of Brahms and Strauss with Principal Oboist, Sarah Jeffrey as soloist. Performances will take place September 27, 28, and 29 at Roy Thomson Hall.

John Storgårds and Barbara Hannigan with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra
​Photo credit: Jag Gundu