Toronto Symphony Shines Spotlight On Nielsen At 150

Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) is being celebrated in symphonic cycles in Toronto, New York and elsewhere.  (Det Kongelige Bibliotek)
Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) is being celebrated in symphonic cycles in Toronto, New York and elsewhere.
(Det Kongelige Bibliotek)
By Colin Eatock

TORONTO — It’s a truism of criticism that the musical world’s fondness for celebrating composers’ big anniversary years is a facile and clichéd approach to programming. But sometimes it’s a good thing, and this is one of those occasions. This concert season marks the 150th anniversary of Carl Nielsen’s birth, which means the Danish composer has a moment in the spotlight, and another chance to find a wider audience.

Thomas Dausgaard is leading the Nielsen cycle in Toronto.
Thomas Dausgaard is leading the Nielsen cycle in Toronto.

I say “another chance” because he’s had a shot at broad popularity before. In the 1960s, Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic famously tried to make Nielsen a household name. The performances and recordings were critically acclaimed, yet Nielsen has remained on the fringes of the canon.

Once again, the Philharmonic has thrown its weight behind Nielsen. Under current music director Alan Gilbert, the orchestra is recording all of Neilsen’s orchestral works. And this time, others are jumping on the bandwagon. The Utah Symphony completed a Nielsen cycle last spring. In London, the BBC Symphony Orchestra is in the midst of a cycle. And in April, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic will present a Sibelius/Nielsen Festival. (Like Nielsen, Sibelius was born in 1865, so it’s his year, too.)

For November, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra placed a Nielsen symphony on three successive concerts. And for this mini Nielsen-fest, the orchestra has found an excellent ally in Thomas Dausgaard. The 51-year-old Dane is a frequent guest conductor with the TSO, so he knows the orchestra. And, as a Nov.13 concert at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall revealed, he also knows Nielsen.

The Nielsen symphony was his Fourth (“Inextinguishable”), and from a big, brash opening, Dausgaard led the musicians in a vivid performance. His treatment of the four conjoined movements was fluid, dynamic, and mercurial. The TSO rose to the challenge to make the most of the music in front of them, especially when different sections were highlighted. The strings were lush and fulsome, and they impressively handled scurrying passages at Dausgaard’s breakneck tempo. The woodwinds blended well, and their playing was rich in detail. In the finale, the passages for two timpanists were gloriously powerful.

Dausgaard and the TSO are playing more Nielsen, with his Second Symphony on Nov. 15 and the Fifth on Nov. 20 and 22. All three of the Nielsen symphonies have been paired with a Beethoven piano concerto performed by Jan Lisiecki.

The 19-year-old Jan Liesicki played Beethoven's Fourth Concerto.
The 19-year-old Jan Lisiecki played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4.

At the age of nineteen, Lisiecki is a rising piano star in Canada and around the world. Born in Calgary to parents from Poland, he made his concert debut when he was nine. His teen years have been a string of debuts — with the New York Philharmonic, the Orchestre de Paris, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, and many other ensembles. In 2010, he signed a contract with Deutsche Grammophon, and he’s already released three discs on the Yellow Label.

On Nov.13, Lisiecki played Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto with a thoughtfulness that belied his age. Throughout, his articulation was crisp and his phrases were marked with a clear sense of direction. In some passages, his playing was delicate and introspective, to good effect. However, there were also moments when a weightier approach might have been welcome. Fortunately, he and Dausgaard were on the same page in interpretative matters, and the orchestra gave a tidy performance.

Lisiecki returned to the stage for an encore: Étude No. 4 from Chopin’s Op. 10. In his hands, it was a brilliant two-minute outburst of virtuosity.

Colin Eatock is a Toronto-based composer and critic. He is the author of two books: Mendelssohn and Victorian England and Remembering Glenn Gould.