Toronto Symphony Salutes Own With ‘Canadian Legacy’

Canadian pianist Alain Lefèvre was the soloist in André Mathieu’s ‘Rhapsodie romantique.’ (Photo by Faisal Kalam)
By Colin Eatock

TORONTO — The Toronto Symphony Orchestra never lets a season go by without including some Canadian music. But when the TSO programs a work by a Canadian, the process often unfolds something like this: a promising composer is commissioned; he or she strives to create something impressive and remarkable, aligned with current trends on the new-music scene; when the piece is premiered, it garners polite applause from the audience; finally, the piece is mothballed, never to be performed again. (And I do believe that much the same happens at many other orchestras in North America.)

Conductor Alain Trudel contributed a fanfare. (Maude Chavin)

So it was refreshing to see the TSO deviate from this broken model with a concert called “Canadian Legacy” at Roy Thomson Hall on Jan. 21. The timing of the program was no accident, falling as it did at the opening of a special year in Canada: 2017 marks the country’s sesquicentennial.

For most of the program, the guest conductor was Alain Trudel, whose own short but vivid fanfare Birth opened the concert. (It was the first of 40 “Sesquies” that the TSO has co-commissioned with other Canadian orchestras for performance this year.) But except for this introductory work, the evening was given over to Canadian scores that were not receiving premieres. In fact, the five main pieces on the program were premiered decades ago — between 1948 and 1974 — and were all written by composers who are no longer living.

Fall Fair, by the Toronto-based Godfrey Ridout, was probably the best-known work, as it has often been played by the TSO and a few other orchestras since its 1961 premiere. The overture is boisterous, full of rustic charm — something like a Copland ballet, except perhaps a little more English in its style. (A performance can be heard here.)

Pierre Mercure: neo-classicism and an almost jazzy sensibility.

Kaléidoscope, by Montreal’s Pierre Mercure, is more a complex and sophisticated work. The piece deftly incorporates French neo-classicism with a suave, almost jazzy sensibility and a few Stravinskian Rite-lite passages. Nowadays, any composer who wrote such a thing would proudly march under the banner of postmodernism. But it’s hard to imagine how the piece would have been pigeon-holed in 1948, when it was created. (An excerpt can be heard here.) Later in his career, Mercure fully embraced modernism and even the avant-garde, but his life was tragically cut short by a traffic accident in France at the age of 38.

Montreal was also represented by André Mathieu’s Rhapsodie romantique of 1958 (revised in 1968). Precociously talented, Matthieu was hailed in his childhood as a “Canadian Mozart,” but his stylistic inclinations placed him firmly in the Rachmaninoff camp. His Rhapsodie romantique brought pianist Alain Lefèvre to the stage, and there were lots of big chords and dazzling figurations from both the piano and the orchestra. However, it soon became apparent that lushness and bravura were ends in themselves in this rambling piece. (It can be heard here and here.) Like Mercure, Mathieu died before he was 40, and is largely forgotten.

Jean Coulthard studied with Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Jean Coulthard’s Introduction and Three Folk Songs from Canada Mosaic came as a breath of fresh air. The only woman on the program, Coulthard was from Vancouver and studied with Ralph Vaughan Williams in London. An English influence can clearly be heard in this work from 1974 (revised in 1984), with its pretty, modal language. Her treatment of French-Canadian and Ukrainian folk songs in the piece is refined and sophisticated. (It can be heard here.)

For the final work, Trudel ceded the podium to another conductor, well known to Toronto audiences. Victor Feldbrill first led the TSO in 1943 and has frequently conducted it in the ensuing decades. On this occasion, the nonagenarian maestro led the Suite from Red Ear of Corn, penned by the Toronto composer John Weinzweig in 1949. Weinzweig made a name for himself as the first Canadian to use Schoenberg’s 12-tone system, but the music for this ballet owes more to Bartók, or perhaps Weinzweig’s teacher, Howard Hanson. The three dances in the suite are exuberant but kitschy, especially the “Tribal Dance,” with its wall-to-wall tom-toms and timpani.

John Weinzweig was Canada’s first 12-tone composer.

Throughout the concert, the TSO captured the spirit of the evening — proud, warm, and festive — and also of the contrasting works placed before it. Both conductors and the evening’s pianist dug into their musical tasks with commitment and conviction. On-stage announcer Tom Allen maintained a brisk, upbeat pace, providing details on each work before it was played.

An orchestra in the U.S. that chose to present a similar concert of Americana might turn to Copland, Gershwin, or Bernstein. While Canada has produced no populist composers equal in stature to those three, the TSO did come up with some crowd-pleasing works by Canadians. Moreover, the program served to undermine the myth that Canadian composers in the 20th century were invariably gnarly, audience-hostile iconoclasts. Sometimes they liked being liked.

Colin Eatock is a Toronto-based composer and critic. He is the author of Mendelssohn and Victorian England and Remembering Glenn Gould. He has written for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The Houston Chronicle, and many other publications. He also teaches at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music.