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Toronto Symphony Orchestra Misses the Mark in Montreal

Maison symphonique de Montréal, Place des Arts
11/12/2019 -  & November 11 (Ottawa), 13 (Toronto), 2019
Emilie LeBel: unsheltered
Sergey Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 19
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93

Karen Gomyo (Violin)
Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis (Conductor)

E. LeBel

Canadian composer Emilie LeBel’s new composition unsheltered was the highlight of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s (TSO) annual visit to the Maison symphonique de Montréal on Tuesday evening. LeBel began composing the 10-minute work, commissioned by the TSO, and given its world premiere in Ottawa the previous evening, when a large portion of the Province of Alberta was on fire in the spring of 2019. Coupled with constant news of migrant and climate change crises, the notion of shelter and the tenuousness of human existence were top of mind when Lebel sat down to compose. Citing the program notes, “This work considers the necessity for refuge, with music shaped by lines that grasp upwards, interspersed with slippery glissando; leading to moments where everything tumbles downwards; and finally contrasted by moments of lightness and retreat.” This sketchy description belies the tremendous impact that the large orchestra delivered in performance. The eerie, menacing opening dominated by the percussion section (including ominous-sounding cow bells) gave way to the impression of some type of colossus coming towards us, such as a large planet moving in on the earth. Always slow-paced, this riveting work’s foreboding intensity steadily increased to a fever pitch, interspersed by penetrating trumpet solos from Andrew McCandless, then gradually subsided to impart a sense of calm and relief. LeBel is a composer to watch.

The two longer works on the program both failed to live up to their potential. Karen Gomyo performed Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with clarity and finesse, but her playing (from the 1703 “Aurora, ex-Foulis” Stradivarius no less) sounded small and strident, while at times overwhelmed by the orchestra. The middle scherzo movement sizzled, but the outer, lyrical movements lacked expressivity and depth. McCandless again impressed with his trumpet solo, as did Mark Tetreault with the tuba near the end of the final movement. (Unusually for a major work, Prokofiev provided no parts for trombone.)

The performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 also failed to reach the inner heart of the work. It sounded like a rehearsal to ensure that the musicians played the correct notes with the appropriate dynamics and tempos. It lacked underlying tension and a sculpted, unifying arc. The first movement sounded ominous but not tragic. There was little pulse, the lower strings didn’t dig in and the middle section seemed loud for the sake of being loud. The Allegro did bristle with energy, and Neil Deland excelled with the enigmatic horn motif in the third movement. But despite the blazing energy of the final movement, with some fine woodwind solos, the overall performance of the symphony lacked the passion and depth to truly capture the horrors of Stalinism.

Earl Arthur Love



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