Chang’s Ferocious Mahler Fifth Pulls Out All The Stops

Han-Na Chang brought a bounty of energy to her conducting duties with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
(Photo by Nick Wons)

TORONTO – When Han-Na Chang last appeared as a guest with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, in 2001, she was a teenage cello prodigy with a troika of EMI recordings behind her. On Oct. 3 the Harvard- and Juilliard-educated native of South Korea reappeared in Roy Thomson Hall with a baton rather than a bow, leaving no doubt of her conducting chops while giving some occasion to ask whether there can be such a thing as too much energy on the podium.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra in Roy Thomson Hall

The big item was Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, a work that demands intensity in the opening measures, and got it, with a bold trumpet call and searing fortissimo that was about as loud as it could be. Inevitably, the grim march gave way to a sorrowful tune in the strings.

Mahler’s request in the second movement for “the greatest vehemence” leaves little scope for interpretation. Chang certainly got a fierce sound from the orchestra at a bracing tempo. Volumes were high in both this movement and the more jovial Scherzo. I confess to feeling an urge occasionally to cover my ears and protect my livelihood. Chang gave the players free rein, but it should be noted that the TSO brass section has been on something of a Bugler’s Holiday since the departure in June of longtime music director Peter Oundjian, who preferred a rounded, glowing sonority.

The famous Adagietto was suitably long-lined, with operatic highs and lows and a heartfully extended final suspension. Indeed, all the codas were coherently shaped, including the last, where Chang nicely broadened the tempo for an apotheosis to maximize the effect of the final headlong dash. High spirits abounded in this finale. Still, I felt overall that quiet interludes were paradoxically the highlights in a sonic landscape dominated by forte and fortissimo and skewed to the treble end. A ferocious Fifth, to be sure.

Was this impression exacerbated by Chang’s kinetic podium style? Rarely did the left hand drop for a breather, let alone the right. Few entries went uncued, a typical gesture being a finger jabbed at the player or section in question. Chang’s commitment to the score (which she used) was not in doubt, but the nonstop spectacle, like the strident sound, became a bit exhausting.

Javier Perianes was soloist in the Ravel G Major Piano Concerto. (Wons)

Trumpeter Andrew McCandless got the first bow, but horn principal Neil Deland was no less worthy of the cheers he received. Before intermission we heard Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G with the Javier Perianes as soloist. Chang, well acquainted with the rhetoric of a concerto, might have been expected to counsel moderation from the orchestra, but the boisterous wind and percussion comments got full value. Perianes generated brilliant rat-ta-tat at the extremes of the keyboard but was generally content to play the introvert, including at the beginning of the Adagio assai, where there was little evidence of the espressivo playing Ravel asked for. The Spanish pianist confirmed his less-is-more approach with a gentle solo encore, Grieg’s Notturno (Op. 54, No. 4).

My observations about Chang, who is chief conductor of the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra, led me to wonder whether I would have made similar comments about an animated male conductor. It seems to me that such a style can be found on either side of the divide. If, indeed, there is a divide. This is a time for careful thinking.

Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for the Montreal Gazette and Musical Toronto.