TORONTO CONCERT REVIEWS

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Guest Conductor Kirill Karabits, Nicola Benedetti and TSO
​Photo credit: @Jag Gundu

​​Review by David Richards
Toronto ON September 27th 2018

TSO with Guest Conductor Kirill Karabits and violinist Nicola Benedetti gives stirring performances of Silvestrov, Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff

The second week of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's new season began last night at Roy Thomson Hall. The much-heralded guest-conductor Kirill Karabits in his first appearance with the TSO and the return of the sensational Scottish violinist, Nicola Benedetti combined to create music of a very high order. 


The concert began with a chamber ensemble of 19 string players, each with their own individual parts, in a performance of Serenade for String Orchestra by Valentin Silvestrov. Strikingly transparent solos emerged from an underlying soundscape as if they emerged from the shadows and then escaped back into the darkness. Later, muted strings, cluster chords and alarming dissonances and textures took the listener further into the darkness. Tension continued to build until in the final section a sweet melody with romantic harmonies emerged and gave resolution. This is a work worthy of being heard again.

Next up was Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto in G Minor, Op.63. Again, the orchestra, now significantly expanded to included winds and percussion, performed with attention to detail and balance. Opening with just the solo violin playing a melancholic theme, Nicola Benedetti demonstrated the rich warm sound of the 1717 Gariel Stradivarius which she plays. Despite lacking the usual cadenza, the music was filled with splendid virtuosic playing. The beautiful phrasing of the second movement was magical. Benedetti displayed a wonderful sense of “cantabile”. The third movement with vigorous dance-like energy and colourful effects provided an uplifting conclusion.

Benedetti has established herself as one of the world’s pre-eminent violinists who happen to be women, along side Anne-Sophie Mutter, Tasmin Little, Viktoria Mullova, Janine Jansen, Julia Fischer, and Hilary Hahn to name but a few. Benedetti broke onto the world stage at age sixteen when she won Britain’s Young Musician of the Year award in 2004. She has become somewhat of a fixture of Toronto’s musical scene since her first appearance with the TSO in 2010. Indeed, this is her third appearance in the last year and a half in Toronto. She is as comfortable performing Vivaldi with the Venice Baroque Orchestra at Koerner Hall in 2017 (see review), as with the Szymanowski whose Violin Concerto No. 2 she performed with the TSO last year (see review). If you're unable to catch this week’s performances, she will be back in Toronto at Koerner Hall on January 25, 2019.

Following intermission, the orchestra expanded in size once more for a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 44. What a performance! The work has the lush harmonies and soaring strings one associates with Rachmaninoff, but it is a work of many contrasts. Exuberance and energy from the entire brass and percussion sections explode out of plaintive sounds of nostalgic Russian memories. The conclusion of the work is joyous and thrilling. It is hard to imagine that the work was not well received in its 1936 premiere in Philadelphia.

From beginning to end, Karabits conducted with precision. Ever the musician’s conductor, there was no grandstanding to the audience. His focus was where it needed to be, leading the orchestra to nuanced and powerful performances. At age 41, he has emerged as a front-line conductor in both the orchestral and operatic realms. His ten years as Music Director of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra has featured performances at the Proms and tours throughout Europe and the US. He is the first Ukrainian-born conductor of a major English orchestra. In September 2016, Karabits also assumed the position of General Music Director and Principal Conductor of the Deutsches National Theater and Staatskapelle Weimar.

Last night’s program will be repeated on Saturday September 29, 2018 at 8pm at Roy Thomson Hall.