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Toronto Symphony Disappoints in Montreal

Maison symphonique de Montréal
05/09/2015 -  & May 6, 2015 (Toronto)
Kevin Lau: Treeship
Felix Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto No. 2 in E minor, opus 64
Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 7 in E major

Augustin Hadelich (Violin)
Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (Conductor)

P. Oundjian (© Sian Richards)

During what appears to be an annual springtime swap for Toronto and Montreal’s principal orchestras, the Toronto Symphony gave a single performance of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony this weekend to what appeared to be a half-empty house at Montreal’s Maison symphonique, home of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal which performed in Toronto last week. Those who stayed away or left during the intermission made an auspicious choice. In contrast to Toronto’s thrilling performance of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben here last year, Saturday’s rendition of Bruckner’s symphony lacked vision and depth. The brass, plagued by several uneven entries, were consistently strident and overly loud, often overwhelming the strings. Conductor Peter Oundjian seemed to race through the score [I clocked it at 61 minutes (my reference version from 2006 by Yannick Nézet-Séguin with Montreal’s “other orchestra”, his Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal) comes in at 70]. This left little chance for creating a uniting architectural arch or shaping a “cathedral of sound”. There was fine solo playing among the woodwinds, and the strings and Wagner tubas were consistently tight. Expressivity, warmth and polish, as well as seamless blending of the different sections of the orchestra, however, are vital to a successful performance of Bruckner. Big city brashness just doesn’t cut it.

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with soloist Augustin Hadelich equally disappointed. From his opening notes it was clear that this German-Italian violinist was out of his depth. The playing was labored (particularly in the slower sections), colorless and monotonous. Although Hadelich showed nimble technique in the fast passages, the third movement in particular lacked felicitousness and rhythm. The first movement cadenza was less than captivating and nowhere did his violin sing. To cap it off, Hadelich gave absolutely no shrift to the thrilling high E (that should be held for three beats!) that crowns the climax of the final movement.

The evening’s program began with a 14-minute work commissioned by the Toronto Symphony from Hong Kong-born composer Kevin Lau (b. 1982). Following last year’s opener based on water (Vivian Fung’s Aqua), this year’s Treeship was based on wood. To quote the composer, “A long, single melody weaves its way through the piece like the trunk of a tree, spawning several smaller motives (branches so to speak) which in turn undergo a kind of organic process of growth and development. The orchestra, which acts as both organism and vessel, carries these motivic identities across time, articulating a musical narrative that ventures from the seafaring heroic to the brink of disaster, and–eventually–to the ‘horizon’ of wonder, where nature and culture unite.” This work showed off Lau’s impressive orchestration abilities as well as a glowing sound from the Toronto Symphony (sadly missing from the Bruckner); however, so similar were the “branches of the tree trunk” that there was little “narrative” to distinguish one section of the work from another. All that was said in fourteen minutes could as easily have been said in four.

Earl Arthur Love



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