Rob Kapilow gives a lesson on Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 with UofT Symphony

Conductor Rob Kapilow
Photo credit:

It was like a homecoming for me last night. Arriving at the Edward Johnson Building for a performance of the University of Toronto Symphony Orchestra, I couldn’t help but remember when, as a young freshman in the fall of 1965, I walked up the same steps and into the enormous lobby of the then almost new structure where many of my musical values would take shape.

Rob Kapilow and the University of Toronto Symphony gave more of a music history and analysis lesson than a concert last night. The first half of the program was like a class of Music History 100 with Professor Harvey Olnick when he waxed on about the magic of the opening ten notes of the third symphony.

Last night it was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 that was the subject of the class/concert. Rob Kapilow is first and foremost an outstanding teacher. He has taken his skills to all corners of the continent to infect enthusiasm for music by explaining its intricate complexities in ways that even the musical neophyte can understand. He has made a career of his What Makes It Great? program and has performed with major symphony orchestras for over twenty years.

This year as the “Wilma and Clifford Smith Visitor in Music” at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music, he will be presenting three What Makes it Great? programs including last night’s. On November 13, The Great Bands of the Swing Era and on February 11th Mendelssohn’s String Octet will be the topics of his analysis.

Many in last night’s audience were familiar with Kapilow. I had seen him previously with the TSO doing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. He has an aura and charisma about him that comes from his enthusiastic and energetic lecture style. He had the audience clapping out rhythms and singing back themes. He went through each of the movements of the symphony emphasizing how magically Beethoven could take the simplest material, usually a rhythmic motif and transform it into something very complex and powerful.

I was particularly intrigued by his description of the second movement (Allegretto). By having the orchestra play excerpts, he demonstrated how a simple theme and variation formula could be turned into a much more complex and powerful structure thanks to Beethoven’s genius. I was once again reminded of the magic that I had first noticed in Olnick’s Music History class.

Kapilow concluded the first half of the program by relating the musical connectedness, and unity in Beethoven’s music to the importance as people to look beyond their differences and instead,  find what unites them

The second half of the program was a performance of the entire symphony. Kapilow conducted without a score and projected the same energy into his conducting as he had in the first half in his lecture/demonstration. The orchestra responded to his energy and gave a very credible reading.

Once again, memories came flooding back. I was reminded of the seminal moments in my own time at UofT like when Rostropovich came to perform the Dvorak Cello Concerto with the orchestra and when we performed Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms the year after Stravinsky had recorded it in Toronto. These moments of lifetime memories feel like they occurred yesterday instead of fifty years ago. Nevertheless, they helped shape my musical path.

Only a few from my graduating class continued as symphonic musicians, but the times spent making music were vital to each student’s development. I’m sure that the members of today’s orchestra are no different. Within the present group are future TSO performers, composers, teachers, researchers and yet to be imagined musical careers. No matter the path, moments like last night’s will help shape their lives.

The University of Toronto Orchestra will perform next on Saturday October 5th at 7:30pm in MacMillan Theatre with conductor Uri Mayer, soloist Jennifer Tran (alto saxophone), and a program of Debussy, Colgrass, Schmitt along with a repeat of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.

​​Review by David Richards
oronto ON September 29th 2019


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