TSO’s 06/07 Season so far…

This season, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra has lined up a series of mini-festivals focusing on the works of notable composers.  This weekend’s performance concluded the Beethoven / Mahler festival, contrasting the Classical and Romantic works of Ludwig van Beethoven with the post-Romantic (and heavily Beethoven-influenced) Gustav Mahler.

Some notes on the performances I attended:

TSO – Beethoven Symphony 9
Gustav Mahler, Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Basically a collection of German folk poems put to music.  Most of the poems selected by Mahler for musical interpretation involve love, death, and aspects of military life.  The symphony performed with skill and grace, but managed to drown out the soloists (Measha Brueggergosman, Susan Platts, Michael Colvin, Brett Polegato) in what should have been quieter moments.  This sort of thing has to be blamed on the orchestra, as it has the greater potential volume and the soloist has “right of way”—not unlike a cyclist riding in traffic.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 9, in D minor, Op. 125
The famous “Ode to Joy”, bastardized in recent years for that odious “Drink Milk, Love Life” campaign.  Good job all around by the TSO and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.  My only beef is that this piece’s tranquil third movement (Adiago molto e cantabile) tends to put me to sleep.  Fortunately the fourth movement’s splendidly engaging choral segments cover a multitude of sins.  A lengthy opus, this baby clocks in at a whopping 67 minutes.

TSO – Beethoven Symphonies 4 & 5
Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 4, in B-flat major, Op. 60
Not quite as famous as certain other works, but entertaining enough on its own.  The second movement (Adiago), which the program notes claim is slower-than-normal, was interesting enough to keep me awake and interested the whole time.  Music Director Peter Oundjian writes in the program notes that composer Igor Stravinsky considered this 4th symphony to be an even finer work than Beethoven’s renowned 5th.

Gustav Mahler, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen [Songs of a Wayfarer]
This is where ol’ Gustav meets Evanescence.  If you dig the “nothing will ever be okay again” lyrical despair of front-woman Amy Lee, know that the 18th century Romantic movement is where a lot of that thematic tapestry first came to prominence.  This Mahler collection is just chock-full of wailing Germanic angst about failed romantic love, like this example:

Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer [I Have a Gleaming Knife]
A knife in my breast.
O grief! It cuts so deep
into every joy and every pleasure.
What a bad guest it is!
It is never quiet,
never stops,
neither by day, nor by night
when I sleep.
O grief!
When I look into the sky,
I see two blue eyes standing there.
O grief! When I walk in the yellow fields,
far away I see that fair hair
waving in the wind.
O grief!
When I start out of a dream
and hear her silver laughter pealing,
O grief!
I wish I were lying on a black bier,
never to open my eyes again.

Generally I have little patience for musical anguish, but I’ll cut Mahler some slack as it was composed when he was a mere 25 years old.  At that age, I suppose it’s fair to say that the trials and tribulations of love retain the appearance of life-or-death drama.  Mezzo-soprano Susan Platts returned for this show and managed to make Teuton depression sound good.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 5, in C minor, Op. 67
Universally known for its four-note opening and stately first movement.  The four-note motif was used by the BBC’s European Service in World War II since it also matched Morse code for the letter V — a handy way of signaling “V for Victory” to a conquered continent waiting for liberation.  The TSO’s performance was as stellar and breathtaking as one would expect for one of Western classical music’s most famous compositions.  All four movements were lively and entertaining.

TSO – Beethoven Symphony 7
Gustav Mahler, Adagietto from Symphony No. 5, in C-sharp minor
Thank goodness Mahler finally married and got all of that brooding angst out of his system.  This piece is a very slow rumination on love and beauty,  and allegedly (according to my wife) quite powerful and moving.  All I will say is that it was powerfully moving my eyelids into the closed position.  Program notes indicate that it was used in the soundtrack of the 1971 film Death in Venice.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 3, in C minor, Op. 37
I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with piano concertos, having spent a fair portion of my life in a house with a talented piano player.  I can enjoy the technical virtuosity required to play such pieces, and can also suffer from contempt bred of familiarity; too many piano sonatas and concertos feel like so much breezy tripping up and down the scales.  Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes does deserve props for technical skill and, charmingly, a sense of modesty.  While the crowd was busy applauding him, he was busy congratulating conductor Peter Oundjian,  concertmaster Jacques Israelievitch and applauding the TSO at large.  Mr. Oundjian had to gently swing him round so that he could accept the loud and sustained accolades of the crowd.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 7, in A major, Op. 92
Another less famous — but no less accomplished — Beethoven opus.  I liked the fast-moving first and fourth movements a lot.  Some reviewers of Beethoven’s time were less kind; according to the program notes, fellow composer Carl Maria von Weber pronounced Beethoven “ripe for the madhouse” on the basis of this work.  Good thing he wasn’t around to see Mahler’s stuff.

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