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TSO performs a stunning Sibelius Symphony No. 5

Pianist Angela Hewitt.

Peter Hundert

Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Roy Thomson Hall
Thursday, March 20, 2014

Toronto audiences heard one of the best orchestras around these days on Wednesday night when the Los Angeles Philharmonic breezed into town with superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel in the lead. But, just 24 hours later, in the same hall, the musicians of the Toronto Symphony proved they could keep up with, if not excel, the skill and musicianship of their Hollywood cousins. Player for player, desk for desk, section for section, the TSO can sound as good as any other instrumental ensemble out there, whatever the buzz around it.

The orchestra was at its best on Thursday in its performance of the Sibelius Symphony No. 5, led by guest conductor Hannu Lintu, chief conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Written just after the First World War, when Sibelius despaired of emulating either the atonal world of Arnold Schoenberg or the brittle irony of an Igor Stravinsky, the Fifth is simply a lonely work of sheer imaginative power. With a highly original structure, the work unfolds as an enormous overreaching rainbow of music, which connects its first notes from the horns to the six massive chords, which close it out three movements and 30-odd minutes later. In between, Sibelius showers us with every conceivable Nordic emotional state he knows, from beautiful portraits of nature, to evocations of windswept, sunlit fiords, flights of swans, powerful natural and emotional storms.

The trick in conducting Sibelius successfully is in keeping all the emotions and the unusual structure of the work crystal and clear, not letting the piece overflow its strict boundaries. This Lintu did with great skill, always keeping the long-range plan of the music in the forefront, avoiding the temptation to let momentary gusts of emotion derail the course of the piece. The TSO responded wonderfully to his direction, creating texture after texture, moment after moment, of extreme beauty. It was a stunning, nuanced, performance.

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The group was less successful, I thought, with the other major work on the program, Beethoven's Emperor Concerto, with our own (okay, Ottawa's own) Angela Hewitt as the soloist. There were moments of great beauty in Hewitt's performance, especially in the lyrical second movement and the equally beautiful second theme of the first. But Beethoven needs a sort of ugliness to work, the ugliness of extremes, of obsession, of excess. None of this was present in Thursday's Emperor. Hewitt has a fine, even beautiful, way of playing the piano, which suits many pieces perfectly. To my ear, this wasn't one.

The concert began with a very winning piece by Ottawa-born Matthew Whittall, called Solen, equally inspired by the painting of Edvard Munch, and the same Sibelius symphony we were to hear later in the program. From Sibelius, Whittall borrowed that arc-like structure, from composers such as John Adams his basic musical language, but it was all put together with great skill and a certain personal style. Today's young composers are like today's young players – immensely talented, with technique to burn, sure, confident. What we hope for them as their careers progress is an ongoing concentration of focus, so their considerable skill can be honed to sharp, precise artistic points, narrower and more powerful. Basically what happened, in a earlier generation, to Jean Sibelius.

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