It's a little hard to believe, but the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, in all of their 92 years of existence, have never played in the city's other acoustic gem that is Koerner Hall. Usually, that space is reserved for smaller events and groups, as the intimate seating doesn't allow for very big audiences. But on August 12 and in conjunction with the Toronto Summer Music Festival, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra finally made their debut at Koerner Hall, which incidentally was also their last Toronto show before departing on a multi-city European tour.
The premise was...interesting, to say the least: put the dozens and dozens of musicians that comprise the Toronto Symphony Orchestra into a cozy hall, and see what would happen when their full sound was unleashed onto the audience. It only took a few seconds of the introductory "Orion" by Claude Vivier to deliver the verdict that yes, this was absolutely a smashing idea. And might it also be one that gets repeated in the future...?
The orchestra, led by Maestro Peter Oundjian, sounded magnificent from the first strains of "Orion" right down to the second surprise encore of "The Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells" from Ravel's Mussorgsky's Pictures, and there were few off moments in the night. In the beginning, it seemed like the orchestra was a little slow to respond to Oundjian's baton, although they reacted much more quickly as they worked through the programme. In a small hall, especially, a fast reaction time is necessary to really pounce on the music and make it come alive.
When talking in terms of sheer musical beauty, Vaughan Williams's "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis" is the epitome. Set in Phrygian church mode, the colours of the text shone through and a polyphonic warmth settled over Koerner Hall. Even though there was "chunkiness" in the notes like eighths and re-bowings, none of that seemed readily apparent, as the music flowed and coursed evenly, sublimely and spiritually.
Weber's "Overture to Oberon" had been scheduled to open the evening but was moved to open the second half, and it ended up being a very good choice. Where "Orion" was harsh, dissonant and the kind of piece that would send you home crying, as Oundjian joked later, "Oberon"was explorative, harmonic and wouldn't be out of place for a repeat performance.
But by far, the most crashing and thrilling piece was Rachmaninoff's "Symphonic Dances, Op.45", which Oundjian teased audiences with back in June. In particular, the valse triste of the second movement makes one feel unsettled and antsy, but that's a testament to how skillfully Rachmaninoff was able to translate emotions into notes. The brasses, snarling and screeching at the beginning, created an atmosphere of unease, while the violins did their part in making the music feel like it was out of a demented version of Alice in Wonderland.
Encores are typically an addendum reserved for rock concerts, so it was quite a pleasant surprise to receive not one, but two, at the end of the night. Oundjian laughed as he introduced the first piece, Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, but only the third movement ("Valse"). That, and Ravel, were both nice caps to an evening full of breadth and depth, and it bodes quite well for the TSO's new season, which starts September 18.