Ax’s Brahms Spices Bland Night With Toronto Symphony

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Peter Oundjian is in his 10th season as music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. (Cylla von Tiedemann)
Peter Oundjian is in his 10th season as music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. (Cylla von Tiedemann)
By Colin Eatock

TORONTO – Peter Oundjian is in his tenth season as music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. And in the last decade, the violinist-turned-conductor has given Torontonians a good idea of which concert soloists he likes to work with. Thanks to him, visits by violinist Itzhak Perlman (Oundjian’s mentor) have become almost annual events. He’s also forged ongoing musical partnerships with pianist Lang Lang, violinist James Ehnes, and a few other notables.

Emanuel Ax’s connections with the TSO predate Oundjian’s arrival by a few decades. But the conductor has cultivated the relationship, and when the 64-year-old pianist made his entrance at Roy Thomson Hall on Nov. 6 to play Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2, he was greeted by the audience as an old friend.

Indeed, by this point in the evening, it’s fair to say that Ax was also greeted as a kind of musical savior. Before the Brahms, the TSO’s fans had to sit through a couple of musical events that were each, in their own way, less than impressive.

The first of these was Haydn’s Symphony No. 96 (Miracle). It was a pleasant performance. Of course, “pleasant” is a complicated little word, embracing a range of positive and negative connotations. It can mean charming and agreeable, but also bland and superficial, and the TSO’s reading was all of these things at once. While the playing was precise and detailed, the orchestral blend was so homogeneous as to be counterproductive, submerging contrasts in color and dynamics.

Canadian composer Gay Kulesha. (kulesha.com)
Gary Kulesha’s Third Symphony had Toronto premiere. (kulesha.com)

Next came Canadian composer Gary Kulesha’s Symphony No. 3, which received its premiere by Ottawa’s National Arts Centre Orchestra six years ago, but was new to Toronto. As the TSO’s composer-adviser for the last 15 years, Kulesha has made himself well known to Toronto audiences through numerous compositions, including his first two symphonies. However, unlike his earlier works in the genre, which tended towards intricacy and dissonance, his Third Symphony belongs in the sound world of more conservative mid-20th-century composers such as Paul Hindemith or Roy Harris.

There’s a slimmed-down fluidity about the newest symphony, which is in three movements and is scored for a Brahms-sized orchestra. It’s lighter and less monumental than Kulesha’s earlier symphonies, but, true to form, it’s masterfully orchestrated, and his ideas are well developed.

If only the ideas themselves were more dramatically compelling. Kulesha’s workmanlike score was not greatly aided by a forward momentum from the podium that seemed relentless and perfunctory. Did the TSO musicians believe in the music they were playing? It was impossible to tell.

Pianist Emanuel Ax played Brahms. (Maurice Jerry Beznos)
Pianist Emanuel Ax played Brahms with TSO. (Maurice Jerry Beznos)

And then came Ax’s moment – and a fine moment it was, as he sat down to play one of the grandest piano concertos ever written. From the opening note of the Brahms, his performance combined masterful authority with the kind of spontaneity one might desire from a much younger player. With a rich palette ranging from delicate filigrees to thundering sequences, Ax brought real excitement to the hall.

Oundjian sensibly followed his soloist’s lead in matters of interpretation, and Ax’s energy found its way infectiously into the orchestra, which rose to a glory yet unheard during this evening. Principal cellist Joseph Johnson shone in his third-movement solos. And, as an encore, he and Ax gave a lovely rendition of Schumann’s “Fantasiestück,” Op. 73, No. 1.

For TSO season details, click here.

Colin Eatock is a Toronto-based critic and composer. Last year his book Remembering Glenn Gould was published by Penumbra Press, and his compact disc Colin Eatock: Chamber Music was released on the Centrediscs label.