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Drama, understatement mark TSO Mozart festival

Jan Lisiecki was born in Calgary in 1995.


The Toronto Symphony Orchestra

  • Jan Lisiecki, piano
  • With the Elmer Iseler Singers,
  • the Amadeus Choir and guest soloists
  • At Massey Hall in Toronto on Wednesday

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra has found a reliable friend in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The orchestra's annual Mozart festival started as Mozart@249, when music director Peter Oundjian launched the January concert series in 2004 to celebrate the composer's 249th birthday. And now we're up to Mozart@256.

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But perhaps all the credit for Wednesday night's near-capacity audience at Roy Thomson Hall shouldn't go to Salzburg's most famous son. While Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor and his Requiem are both guaranteed crowd-pleasers, a young man named Jan Lisiecki was also responsible for more than a few sold tickets.

The Calgary-born pianist is surely one of the most remarkable and accomplished 16-year-olds in Canada. It will be two years before he can vote in a federal election, but he's already appeared as a soloist with the Orchestre de Paris. He can't yet buy a drink in a bar, but he recently signed a recording contract with the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label.

From the opening of the concerto, it was apparent that Mozart poses no technical obstacles to Lisiecki. Perched on the edge of the piano bench, the tall, slim teenager played with security and assurance. In this he was well supported by Oundjian on the podium, who quite sensibly decided that this was no time for risky business from him or the TSO.

Lisiecki has sweated the small stuff – and his efforts have paid off. His approach to Mozart's D Minor Concerto was light-fingered and dexterous, with careful attention to the tiniest details of every phrase. Sudden flashes of drama contrasted nicely with intriguingly understated passages.

In the outer movements' cadenzas, Lisiecki indulged in a playful approach, adroitly toying with audience expectations. This was sophisticated musicianship, at a level well beyond his years.

However, less developed was his sense of the sublime. This was especially noticeable in the second movement, where the finest artists have been known to transform a piano into a singing instrument. In Lisiecki's hands, the piano steadfastly remained a piano: Passages that called for a smooth legato sometimes had a detached, connect-the-dot quality.

With his choice of encores – Mozart's Rondo alla Turca – the prodigious pianist again displayed a winsome penchant for musical playfulness.

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Lisiecki is still growing as a pianist, and it will be interesting to see how he responds to the challenges that lie ahead of him, as his career moves into high gear. There's no doubt that he holds great promise.

D minor remained the evening's key of choice when the TSO – augmented by the Amadeus Choir, the Elmer Iseler Singers and a quartet of soloists – turned their attention to Mozart's Requiem. (The famously unfinished work was performed, as it often is, in the version completed by Franz Xaver Sussmayr.)

The combination of the amateur Amadeus Choir and the professional Iselers produced a 65-voice ensemble possessing clarity and focus, yet also a big, robust sound. Under Oundjian's baton, the choirs sank their collective teeth into Mozart's last work, in a performance full of drama, solemnity and grandeur.

However, the soloists weren't consistent in quality. The strongest were mezzo Kelley O'Connor and tenor Frédéric Antoun – both of whom possess a purity of tone and intonation that made their singing a delight. Unfortunately, Simone Osborne's delicate soprano voice didn't always project well in Roy Thomson Hall, and baritone Tyler Duncan's delivery was marred by a vocal roughness unsuited to this repertoire.

The TSO offered solid support to the choirs and soloists. Only a conspicuously uncentred trombone note at the outset of Tuba Mirum marred the orchestra's otherwise fine performance.

The program is repeated Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Roy Thomson Hall and Sunday at 3 p.m. at George Weston Recital Hall.

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