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When Stravinsky meets Brahms in Toronto

Roy Thomson Hall
06/09/2007 -  
Johannes Brahms : Variations on a Theme by Haydn, opus 56a – Symphony No.3, opus 90
Igor Stravinsky : Violin Concerto

Gil Shaham (violin)
Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (conductor)

Brahms and Stravinsky – what do they have in common?

Tonight’s concert surrounded a common theme of “looking back,” as Maestro Peter Oundjian announces to us after the first piece in tonight’s program. Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn is a composition of unostentatious orchestral and compositional virtuosity. We were reminded by the Maestro that this so-called “Theme” (based on St. Anthony’s Chorale) was in fact not written by Haydn (but correctly, by Pleyel). In this piece, Brahms gave us eight delightfully diverse variations. As a whole, it was a wonderful example of “reviving the old and the forgotten”, which at its time and even till this day, provided afresh a new image based actually on elements derived from the past. Musically, this cannot be better illustrated as in the finale of the work, a Passacaglia, which is a set of variations on a reiterated bass. Under the baton of Maestro Oundjian, compliments should be given to the woodwind players, who delivered the thematic elements in the form of a wind divertimento fashionably, adding an antiquarian quality on top of the original music material. Next, the discreetly low pizzicati sandwiched with tender-playing strings (albeit, at times, disjointed) stood out more-or-less effectively throughout these variations-within-a-variation, creating a real orchestral texture and colour in the form of a dialogue. Hearing this piece visually gave one an impression of a child, who bore resemblance to both of his/her parents. Metaphorically juxtaposed, in the finale, one could not discern more of the melody, or of its bass, as it joined in unison. The biggest criticism, however, came with the Brass members, whose four players sounded their instruments inadequately at the inappropriate moment, over-powering in sound and temperaments, distorting the polarity, when their presence should be supportive rather than domination by nature. Nevertheless, this piece enjoyed a joyful triumph as an introduction, and this “question and answer” element played out to the very last.

Stravinsky wrote his Violin Concerto in the year of 1931, commissioned for and completed under the assistance of the American violinist Samuel Dushkin. Stravinsky initially was reluctant, questioning his own lack in profound understanding of the instrument as the confounding factor. Paul Hindemith, an exponent of the strings himself, debated otherwise, noting that Stravinsky had the advantage of not playing the instrument and thus unlikely to fall into the use of violin clichés. Like all things in life, Mother Nature had her own course. What turned out to be Stravinsky’s only violin concerto became his most masterful concerto, highly original and energetic in style and pace. This piece certainly stood up to the crown as being the highlight of tonight’s concert.

Originality is certainly synonymous with Stravinsky’s composition style here, and Maestro Oundjian once again reminded us of one such example right at the forefront. Immediately at the opening of each movement, one could hear the use of an unusual string technique, adopting wide-spread (ie. spanning over 2 1/2 octaves) triple-stopped chords followed by three downbowed ones, clearly “Stravinskyian,” with slight variation in flavour each time. If this alone did not attract Stravinsky to a listener as an innovator, his fusion of styles certainly did here. Glaringly obvious was the composer’s paid tribute to no-less the great Baroque master Johann Sebastian Bach, first with his choice of titles to each of the movements (Toccata, Aria I, Aria II, and Capriccio), followed by the heavy contrapunctal writing throughout. The experienced ear could reminisce in this work’s Capriccio movement honor to Bach’s very own Concerto for Two Violins, represented here disguised as the duet between the soloist and the concertmaster. Nonetheless, the genius in Stravinsky could be outlined if one studies the score as a whole. The outer movements were lively, young and forward-moving, while the two cantabile and dolce Arias replaced the standard slow movements of the standard classical concerto form. These hallmarks underscored this piece in the unique category of Neo-Classicism.

Like the Dvorak’s concerto featured from last week, a cadenza was not written by Stravinsky. Why, one may ask? Violin virtuosity was clearly not a theme demanded in this piece, except for a few technical leaps during the latter moments of the Toccata and opening of the Capriccio, then otherwise relatively tame. Unlike other compositions of its kind, this concerto focused not on solo extravagance, but a concerto whose challenge founded on a soloist’s talent for musical cooperativity, at times even to voice musical exchanges with the Orchestra in the style of a chamber group. Who else, then, would fair better in highlighting these elements than our featured soloist tonight, Gil Shaham. A very-much active solo and chamber musician (with both his wife and sister), audience in Toronto had only craved for his return ever since his last appearance on our concert-stage more than three years ago. Mr. Shaham is of course very well-respected, from the standard warhorses of Paganini, Mendelssohn, and Sibelius, to a lesser extent the concerti of Korngold and Barber. So, what about this distant, under-showcased 20th century œuvre? Although his foot-stamping and bodily postures at times could cause a minor visual distraction, Mr.Shaham was definitely irrefutable as a “man of all trades” visually and audibly on stage, show-casing as needed, but blending symbiotically with members of the Orchestra with ease, but care. At the Aria movements, Mr. Shaham would bow-away the most beautiful silk-like passages, even to the distant ear as far as in the Balcony. But at times when needed, Mr. Shaham would intelligently emphasize key-passages of counterpoint, as in the final Capriccio movement. Here, Mr. Shaham fanfared with the Orchestra almost in the style of an improvisation as one would appreciate on a scintillating showpiece. His intrinsic rhythmic vitality was articulate and well-planned, that eventually transitioned to an exchange in 3/8 and 2/8 meters between himself and the horns. Ideally, a more cantabile singing in the horns would have been warranted, just before the music revealed the anticipatory tension that flared to a dramatic close with the soloist.

And to complete the rest of this evening’s performance, a rather literal reading of Brahms’ Symphony No.3 was featured. First and foremost, however, compliments should be made to individual members of the Orchestra (for example, the two flutists, oboists and clarinetists) along with the violists and cellists as a whole, who had impressed a great deal in their tone-colour as determined by the solo, as well as duet passages of the movements. The other string and brass players also had their “moments” so to speak, but lacked the musical luster and touch as the music demands in time. Dialogue between players has often been a key of criticism to discern a great Orchestra from a weak one. It may also be why this piece is often viewed as a conductor’s “test piece” to deisolate an ensemble as being carefully-planned and mutually thoughtful, as suppose to one being careless and sloppy. Thus, what aloof the ears of the author were simple: where was the unity in the music-playing to demonstrate communication and cooperativity as a whole? Were the members communicating with each other, or merely on “cruise-control” keeping solely in line to their very own confines? More engagement and response between the Orchestra and its conductor would certainly have benefited. Perhaps, these were the result of a lack of rehearsals, or were cues from the Maestro simply ill-represented or mistook by the members?

The Toronto Symphony could in one night glamour with such magnificence, at times even to the ranks with the world’s finest orchestras. Yet, with only an intermission’s difference, their playing could be so unremarkable and inconsistent. “Where did the beautiful sound go,” as one audience commented to his partner at the end of the concert. It was not so long-ago, in fact just last evening, when a magnificent Orchestra triumphed playing at the LUMINATO festival. And, these players were members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, albeit Maestro Oundjian was replaced at the podium by the Italian conductor Giordano Bellincampi. Could one night be such a difference, or were the players just tired and eagerly awaiting “to finish their homework just to go home?”

Nice try on a Saturday night’s concert, especially with Gil Shaham, but no cigars! Better luck next time!

Patrick P.L. Lam



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