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The 1920s: boldness and impudence

Roy Thomson Hall
11/02/2016 -  & November 3, 5, 2016
Darius Milhaud: La Création du monde, Op. 81
Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 10

Jon Kimura Parker (piano)
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, James Gaffigan (conductor)

J.K. Parker (© JAG Photography)

The second instalment of the TSO’s overview of the 1920s opened with Darius Milhaud’s jazzy score for a ballet, La Création du monde, completed in 1923. He had heard jazz the previous year in New York; this work’s premiere in Paris marked an early appearance for jazz there (this was two years before Josephine Baker took the city by storm). The saxophone is prominent and the piece features a stumbling fugue that is quite unlike any previous fugue. It is amazing how just 19 players can fill a large hall with the work’s raucous clatter. This is not meant as an adverse comment on the work, but it might be more engaging if accompanied by choreography.

Jon Kimura Parker comes across as one of the most cheerily affable performers on concert stages today (see photo above). On this occasion, though, when he sat down to play Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 an alter ego emerged: serious (VERY!) and focussed. What ensued was a tense, edge-of-the-seat experience that crackled with energy. The finale of the first movement, with orchestra and soloist precisely together, brought gasps of amazement from the near-capacity audience. The entire work was performed with a bracing gusto.

It is well-known that Dmitri Shostakovich in his later career consciously referred to the music of Modest Mussorgsky. However I find there is something Mussorgskian - i.e. untamed - about his first symphony, composed at age 19. There is nothing tentative about this work - it announces that here is a new composer with much that is original and urgent to say. Don Anderson’s program notes a statement from the composer about the work: “a symphony like any other” (which is surely disingenuous) but it also “ought to be called a symphonie-grotesque”, which is a lot more like it. The notes also use the word “impudence” which is very apt.

The piece contains many episodes featuring intriguing solo turns for orchestral players; at one point a tympany solo leads to a cello solo - there are many such passing fancies. Was Dmitri showing off? Yes, indeed, and why not? Maestro Gaffigan deftly steered through the many twists and turns.

A word on the audience: Saturday concerts are billed as “informal”. They start earlier, there is no intermission, and people can bring drinks to their seats. I am not enamoured of the drinks policy, but the audience was notably younger than usual and it turned out to be very attentive and responsive. My seat gave me a vantage point from where I could see electronic devices being used (or not). I have noticed that they tend to light up when people are bored by the music. This audience was most definitely not bored.

It is widely assumed that any guests conductor appearing with the TSO is under consideration for taking over the music director’s position when Peter Oundjian steps down after next season. Mr. Gaffigan could well be a contender.

Michael Johnson



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