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It was a cool September evening. I made my way through the swarms of people crowding outside Roy Thompson Hall, excited to watch the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's second concert of this season. They were going to be performing music from the genres I personally find most intriguing and exhilarating - sentimental, film-worthy Romantic works, and 21st century postmodern music that hits the audience over the head with the baseball bat of radical innovation. However, I decided to free my mind of all preconceived ideas as I found my way to my seat, and enjoy the show with a zen mind. What came next surpassed all the expectations I initially had.

The program began with Canadian composer Randolph Peter's  Butterfly Wings and Tropical Storms (2002), which was based on the "butterfly effect" - the scientific idea that the many small disturbances caused by a flying butterfly would multiply over time and eventually create a tropical storm. The piece opened with a flute duet, played so effectively that one could practically visualize a swarm of butterflies flitting through a jungle. The strings, representing light winds, then joined in with a warm melody that contrasted the thin texture of the flutes, alternating blissfully between consonance and dissonance. The music soon grew darker and more ominous, culminating in a deafening cataclysm of sound representing the eye of the storm - both written and played with all the power of nature. The composer had made use of a variety of sonorities, including harmonics in the strings and dreamy arpeggios in the harps, all of which were given meaning and direction by the musicians. Finally, the storm died down and the butterflies returned tranquilly, before the piece ended with a piercing, poignant high note. Within just nine minutes, the orchestra more than successfully managed to bring Peters' evocative score to life, and tell a captivating story that resonated greatly with the audience.

This striking opening number was then followed by Sibelius' Violin Concerto in D minor, played quite beautifully by Henning Kraggerud, a renowned Norwegian violinist. Mr. Kraggerud's notes were clear and profound in a concerto that is dark, meditative, and full of Romantic yearning. In all movements, the many voices in the violin part were brought out with exceptional skill and dexterity. Both orchestra and soloist actively demonstrated the cross-rhythms in the piece that pervade much of Sibelius' music, tricking the ear and making for a wonderful listening experience. The performance ended with great applause, and Mr. Kraggerud followed it up with an encore - a duet he performed with the principal cellist, which I later found out was Kraggerud’s original composition, Variation Suite for Violin and Cello. This impetuous little piece was played with remarkable character, and was received with great enthusiasm all around.

It was soon almost time for the second half to begin, featuring Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 2. Being an ardent lover of Rachmaninov, I waited in excited silence for the music to begin. Composed in 1901, this work marks the composer's overcoming a period of intense depression, brought about by the unmitigated failure of his ambitious first symphony. Despite the circumstances under which it was composed, the piece does not at all represent darkness, but rather conveys an optimistic and heartfelt tone - the complete opposite of the Sibelius. The melodic strains soared through the strings and winds in the first movement, before the entrance of brusque and spirited rhythms in the second movement, punctuated accurately by Maestro Oundjian's exaggerated hand motions. The third movement was perhaps the most effective, with Rachmaninov's scintillating harmonies being played in a way that they endlessly changed color, with not a single dull moment. The dramatic fourth movement that closed the show, was played with such fervor that it brought the audience to its feet. All in all, this night proved to be an ineffable experience, displaying a spectrum of moods and emotions through myriad expressions of music.

On Wednesday September 28th and Thursday September 29th, the TSO under the baton of Peter Oundjian will be joined by Jamie Barton (mezzo-soprano), the women of the Amadeus Choir, the women of the Elmer Iseler Singers, and the Toronto Children’s Chorus in performances of Mahler’s Symphony No.3 at Roy Thompson Hall at 8pm.

Maestro Peter Oundjian, Henning Kraggerug and the TSO; ​Photo by Jag Photography

Review by Tussah Heera
Toronto ON September 25th 2016

TSO brings out a spectrum of emotions in Romantic and Postmodern music

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