TORONTO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA:
​sublime to disquieting...a study in contrast

Review by David Richards

May 14, 2016



The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented a brilliant program of Mozart and Shostakovich last night at Roy Thomson Hall. Composed almost 200 years apart, the two masterpieces gave the TSO ample opportunity to display its expressive abilities in two works that couldn’t have been more contrasting. Nevertheless, both pieces demonstrated that music doesn’t happen devoid of a social context.

Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.5 in A Major, K.219 is nick-named ‘The Turkish Concerto’. Written in Salzburg in 1775, it picks up on the fascination with all things Turkish, prevalent in Mozart’s time. In his pre-concert chat, Rick Phillips explained that the Austrians loved Turkish coffee, ornately colourful costumes, and ‘Turkish delight’ candy, all of which were in vogue. An episode in the third movement of the concerto mimicked a Turkish ‘Janissary’ marching band with its pulsating, percussive rhythms and contrasted with the graceful Viennese elegance of the remainder of the movement.

Russian violinist, Julian Rachlin and guest conductor Andrey Boreyko combined to make a stylistically exciting performance. Neither Rachlin nor Boreyko are new to the city. Rachlin performed with the TSO in 2014. Boreyko, currently Music Director of Orchestre National de Belgique, has guest conducted with the orchestra on numerous occasions. Together, with a trimmed down orchestra of just 35 players, they turned the TSO into a remarkable chamber ensemble. Rachlin made his Stradivarius violin sound as clear and heavenly as one could possibly imagine.

The main event of the evening was the monstrous Symphony No. 13 in B-flat Minor, Op113 by Dmitry Shostakovich. It utilized all of the orchestra’s resources including 2 harps, piano, celeste, and a battery of percussion instruments. In addition to the 90 instrumentalists, the performance included 40 male voices of the Amadeus Choir and Elmer Iseler Singers as well as the superb Russian bass soloist, Petr Migunov.

The basis of the work is a series of five poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The first poem, ‘Babi Yar’, depicts the horrors of the tens of thousands of Jews killed by Nazi invaders in 1941 and later cremated en masse just outside of Kiev. The poem was written in 1961 after attempts to have a monument to the victims erected were refused. Migunov gave me shivers as I listened to his powerful, dramatic and yet warm voice fill the hall. The male chorus might well have been from the Bolshoi Opera House. The sound was deep and thunderous at times and in other moments it was disturbingly plaintive.

Boreyko has recorded several Shostakovich symphonies. In last night’s performance, he created a rhythmically tight and dramatic rendering of the work. Conductor Boreyko got the most out of the huge forces in both the anger of the first movement, and the eerie sounds of the low brass and strings in the third. Hopefully Boreyko’s guest appearances with the TSO will continue.

The program will be repeated at the George Weston Recital Hall tomorrow, Sun. May 15 at 3:00pm.

Boreyko, Migunov, the TSO and Men from the Amadeus Choir and the Elmer Iseler Singers
​Photo by Malcolm Cook

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