Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Benjamin Britten: Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes”, Opus 33a
Max Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Opus 26
John Estacio: Frenergy
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 4
Itzhak Perlman (Violin)
Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (Music Director and Conductor)
If Peter Oundjian was aiming to show off his fine Toronto Symphony Orchestra, he couldn’t have chosen four more flashy works. But conductor Oundjian, himself a native of Toronto, is more circumspect than that. In fact, it was almost coincidental that the music, as part of Carnegie Hall’s “Great Orchestras” series served as a show horse for all the consorts of the Canadian ensemble.
Yet what choice could we possibly have from the first measures of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes but to gasp at the beauty of the high violin “seagull calls” and their following lines? Nor could the soothing soft brass choir produce anything but awe. It didn’t end there. The entire orchestra surged and heaved at the last Interlude, and the brilliant brass continued its stentorian honors throughout the evening, up to the final fugue of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ greatest symphony, starting with Sir Ralph’s signature tuba.
One must compare Peter Oundjian instinctively with the St. Louis Symphony dynamo, David Robertson. Both of them are outgoing on the dais, they choose to visit New York with the most radiant musical paintings, and they are both stimulated with extrovert easy joy when they conduct.
I suspected that Mr. Oundjian would give a few words to the Carnegie Hall audience, and it was hardly out of place when he gave a laudatory and anecdotal speech about Sir Ralph. Since this “other” British heavyweight is virtually never performed here. Mr. Oundjian’s assertion that the composer loved jazz seems incredulous (though the image of the doughty Gloucesterman jivin’ and bobbin’ to Louis or Miles is irresistible). But his veneration of Sir Ralph was well justified in a performance of the mighty Fourth.
This was not your “Fantasia on a Theme of Terry-Thomas” or “Greensleeves” but a massive symphony, more in line with Sibelius or even Bruckner than the usual Vaughan Williams pleasantries. The Toronto ensemble displayed Vaughan Williams themes and modal tricks so transparently that the 32-minute work had an unerring unity. The final fugue, with the tuba and other brass coming up for air, was, under Mr. Oundjian’s direction, frankly blazing.
The one openly display piece piece had Itzhak Perlman doing the Bruch Concerto. Of course it was perfect, lyrical, and to those who haven’t ever heard it, heavenly. I frankly mused through its romantic auras, hoping, praying for an encore, a little Bach, but Mr. Perlman took his well-deserved applause and left.
The New York premiere of Canadian composer John Estacio was the equivalent of five minutes of fame. The cutely-titled Frenergy was exactly five minutes of frenetic, energetic chattering music, totally tonal, backed up by incessant rhythmic motifs (mainly triplets), a fanfare somewhat akin to the old Soviet fanfare music.
Frenergy gave a display of orchestral virtuosity on the part of Mr. Oundjian and his people as few orchestras are capable. Musically, it was a passing lightning bolt. With the opening Britten Sea Interludes, we had lightning and storms, church bells and dawns, moonlight and birdcalls.
This also took virtuosity, and the orchestra has that in spades. What Mr. Oundjian offered were the shadows, the mysteries and the underlying terror of Britten’s great opera.