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Further C20 exploration

Roy Thomson Hall
10/28/2015 -  & October 29*, 2015
Carl Nielsen: Helios Overture, Op. 17
Béla Bartók: Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra, Sz. 36
Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43

Benjamin Schmid (violin)
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, John Storgĺrds (conductor)

B. Schmid (© Malcolm Cook)

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Decades Project continues with the second concert devoted to the first decade of the twentieth century. The performance adopted the familiar overture-concerto-symphony pattern which has received a good deal of negative comment recently, although it worked perfectly well in this case.

The opener was Carl Nielsen’s Helios Overture, dating from 1903, the title of which refers to the fact that it is a concert overture, not the start of a longer work (opera, oratorio, etc). It is actually a tone poem inspired by a sojourn in Athens during which the composer was assigned a work room with a view of the Acropolis, no less, and wrote this 12-minute piece inspired by the intense Mediterranean summer sun from quiet sunrise to the sweeping grandeur of midday to, once again, the silence of sunset, during which the horns go from playing quietly to very, very quietly - and then a lengthy silence skillfully maintained by conductor John Storgĺrds. It is truly wonderful when a near-capacity house is in synch with such a gesture.

Béla Bartók’s first violin concerto has an odd history because, while it was completed in 1908, it wasn’t performed until 1958. When in his mid-twenties Bartók fell in love with a young violinist, Stefi Geyer (1888-1956). He wrote the concerto for her but it hadn’t been yet played when she ended their relationship. He acceded to her request for the manuscript and the work remained unperformed until after her death (and 13 years after Bartók’s death).

The work opens with a wistful solo, soon joined by the orchestra’s two lead violinists; the work gradually unfolds to include the whole orchestra before the music melts away. The second movement makes a more forceful statement although a yearning theme featuring two harps appears. When Bartók began the piece he sketched three movements but what emerged is the two-movement work which, with its tender evocation of love and its exuberant, declarative finish, seems fully complete.

Austrian violinist Benjamin Schmid (making his TSO debut) has a wonderfully persuasive way with the piece, from its subtle (even seductive) opening to those passages with what was emerging as Bartók’s trademark sinewy sound. The composer had just begun his folk music researches which were to take his composing in a new direction away from the influences of 19th century romanticism. Conductor John Storgĺrds was once a concertmaster which likely contributes to a sensitive response to a guest violinist - balances were fine and everything seemed to find its natural place.

The orchestra and local audience are very familiar with the music of Jean Sibelius. Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s sojourn as music director (1994-2001) featured his music a lot, and a few seasons ago Thomas Dausgaard led a complete cycle of all seven symphonies. John Storgĺrds is Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic so one must assume he has an affinity - as amply demonstrated in the performance of Symphony No. 2, dating from 1902.

The performance was absorbing right from the subtle upswelling bass at the start to the great finale in a way that was both urgent yet unhurried. Throughout, the conductor knit together the disparate threads of the score, notably in the second movement when an aggressively brooding theme turns lyrical. The powerful work evokes Finland to such a degree that Storgĺrds conducting seemed to guide us through both the geology and geography of this ever-popular work.

The symphony’s Decades Project has an ongoing counterpart in a small display at the Art Gallery of Ontario. This particular concert was supplemented during intermission by a presentation on men’s fashions of the era. The Project continues in November with works by Mahler, Strauss, Dvorák and Rachmaninoff.

Michael Johnson



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