Saturday, June 18, 2011

Late Night TSO and Mahler 5

Wow!  Just WOW!  For so many reasons.
1. I'm starting this post within minutes of returning home from the concert.
2.  The TSO has a new concertmaster.
3.  Mahler is epic!

Tonight was the third in a series of concerts featuring Mahler's Symphony 5. As part of the Toronto Luminato festival, tonights was Late Night: Mahler 5 with a 10:30pm start time, and consisted only of the 70ish minute symphony.  I'd class it as a casual concert given the orchestra plain black attire.  Personally, I think one trombonist took the casual thing too far...a black sweatshirt, really?  Not even a terribly nice looking one.  The black shirt with jacket favoured my some of the gentlemen is classy, or even the more casual black dress shirt with the cuffs rolled up to the elbows (*sigh* one of my favourite looks on a guy) that bassoonist Sam Banks was sporting is fitting.  On the other hand I noticed more fancy dressed audience members than I'd classify as normal.  Ok, end wardrobe digression.

Walking into the hall right away something was different.  I'll call it mood lighting which tends to only show up at Pops shows.  However, lighting was used very effectively throughout the evening.  Case in points:  The symphony opens with a trumpet fanfare solo, and a spot was placed on Principal trumpet Andrew McCandless.  During the slow movement featuring just strings and the harp, the lights on the brass, winds, and percussion were dimmed.

If the lighting wasn't enough to catch your attention, as the orchestra members began to take their seats, where they were sitting would have.  The layout had the basses (all 8 of them...told you Mahler was epic!) on the left side of the stage, behind the first violins and cellos which had been moved from their usual stage right position to beside the first violins.  The violas were pretty much the same, maybe shifted over slightly, and in the usual cello spot were the second violins.  There was also the fact that the score sitting on the conductors stand was about 2 inches thick!

Jonathan Crow (
10:30pm arrived, the concertmaster for the evening, Jonathan Crow as per the program, appeared and the orchestra went wild...well as wild as an orchestra gets.  It's not uncommon to applaud a guest concertmaster but this foot stomping went beyond the usual.  Since this is the 2nd or 3rd guest I've seen this season (beginning with Jonathan Carney for Rhapsody in Blue back in Oct 2010, and a few weeks ago at Rachmaninoff Rhapsody David Bowlin) I anticipated a new hire would be announced shortly for the concertmaster chair which has been open for as long as I've been a regular attendee (so at least 2 years).  I didn't expect that "shortly" to be less than a minute.  Conductor Peter Oundjian followed Mr. Crow on stage and announced he was the new TSO concertmaster!  From a quick search, it would appear he has had quite the career with the Montreal Symphony joining at 19, and becoming concertmaster (the youngest to hold that position in any North American orchestra at the time) at 25 continuing through 2006.  Since then he's been more focused on chamber music, but is now the new concertmaster of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra!

As for the actual piece.  I said after the season opening Mahler Symphony #2 "The Resurrection" that youtube didn't do Mahler justice.  A sentiment which I will strongly echo again!  It's just not possible to have the same experience listening to any recording as you get from being in a concert hall filled with people, and an orchestra consisting of 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 7 French horns, 3 oboes, 3 bassoons, 3 clarinets, the previously mentioned 8 basses, and a percussion section complete with gong, timpani, bass drum, and crash cymbols (just to name a few), and the usual strings.

The first of the five movements is a funeral march, but such a pretty one.  The overriding theme, if one must find one, is a journey from darkness to light.  Dynamics play a huge part in what I've heard of Mahler.  Each movement, save for the fourth slower and string based Adagietto which was a love letter to Mahler's wife Alma, had pianissimo and fortissimo alternations and it made complete sense for the winds to put in ear plugs when the horns let loose, sometimes even raising their bells.  Additionally,  this was sometimes done by the clarinets, and oboes as well.  Given the weight and length of the work I don't even know where to begin at describing sections I loved.  I don't remember where they were (for a "real" review of a performance earlier this week, see this).  There was a small violin solo part Mr. Crow played, looking forward to seeing him featured more next season, and string pizzicato sections that were fun to watch and added variety.  In the Allegro Finale, the switch into a major tonality was thrilling.  It really felt like the journey was complete.  As described by Herbert von Karajan " forget that time has passed...The fantastic finale almost forces you to hold your breath."  Somewhere, perhaps in the second movement, there was this great entrance by the brass that actually did have me holding my breath, as well as the Finale.

I have never seen a Toronto audience on their feet so quickly.  I'd say it was one step before "leaping to their feet", but it was the fastest and most complete standing ovation I have yet seen.  It lasted for 3 sets of bows and acknowledgement of the brass, horn, percussion, and wind sections.

The season is technically not complete, but this is the final concert conducted by Peter Oundjian, the final full classical work, the final performance by the new concertmaster (the program lists current associates sitting first chair for the next few weeks), and I'll venture a guess, the final to feature a full conglomerate of principal players.  So what a fitting bookend to a season that started and ended with epic Mahler!

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