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 Sir Andrew Davis conducts Berlioz ; Photo credit: Jag Gundu

With many fresh new faces in the orchestra, the evening began with Godfrey Ridout’s arrangement of O Canada, the orchestra joined by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. I think I have never heard the national anthem sound better. The violins and violas played standing.

It was my privilege to know the late Ernest Côté, descendant of Calixa Lavallée, and to learn from him first hand the story of the composition of this work, that began as a hymn to be featured in a royal mass on the Plains of Abraham. I thought it was an excellent way to begin this season of the TSO, and to judge from the appreciative murmurs of audience members, others did too.

Next on the program was Berlioz’s Fantasy on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, composed for the theatre in the same year as the composer’s Fantastic Symphony, and later inserted into a work intended to serve as a sequel to that symphony, and to be performed after it. Unusually, the overture requires a choir, and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir sang their part, waking Miranda, beautifully. A piano duo is needed in addition to a full orchestra.

 Sir Andrew Davis, Toronto Symphony Orchestra and ​Toronto Mendelssohn Choir
Photo credit: Jag Gundu

Berlioz is known in music history for two things: for the expansion of the orchestra (for example using quintuple winds, or five instrumental woodwind or brass parts and ranges instead of four) and the featuring of many different orchestral colours, and for composing his works with thematic transformation rather than motivic development. Where the strings are the backbone of the orchestra in Beethoven’s symphonies, they are featured more for unusual sounds, such as plucking or striking with the bow in Berlioz’s music.

While Beethoven develops short musical motives of four or five notes (think of the first movement of his Fifth Symphony) into longer phrases and eventually into movements, Berlioz does not. Instead, he presents a complete theme once, then brings it back transformed, for instance in the minor instead of the major, or in a different time signature, or register. The result is a different kind of musical discourse, one arguably more appropriate to the programs that his music brought to life.

The overture is not often heard, and the variety of sounds and textures was very appealing.

Next Sir Andrew Davis, interim and former director of the orchestra, conducted the Variations concertantes Op.14 by Canadian composer Jacques Hétu, a piece commissioned by the TSO and composed in 2006. The theme was hauntingly beautiful, a bit like a Canadian version of Ives’s Unanswered Question with a seemingly aimless modern line set against a static high texture in the violins. After that the theme was varied in several ways, for example put as a waltz.

After intermission came the feature of the night, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. The huge raised bells that had been sitting on stage all night finally played their part in the dream of a witches’ sabbath movement. This section also featured the chant sequence Dies irae, referring to Judgement Day. Since death is a big part of judgement day, this part of the work makes good use of trombones, the instruments that have been, since the middle ages, associated in the theatre with death (in the German version of the Bible, the last trumpet or trump in Revelations is not a trumpet at all, but a trombone).

The double reeds were very strong throughout the symphony and the trombones and French horns (sometimes muted and in the low range to make a particularly nasty sound) were very effective. Mention should be made of Cary Ebli (English horn) and Neil Deland (French horn).

If you missed the concert you can catch it on Friday at 7:30 p.m. or on Saturday at 8:00 p.m. I recommend it highly.Type your paragraph here.

​​Review by Paul Merkley FRSC

Toronto ON September 21st 2018

 Sir Andrew Davis, Symphony fantastique; Photo credit: Jag Gundu

TSO opening night: a fantastic symphony orchestra plays the Symphonie fantastique