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Pianist Jonathan Biss. (HO)
Pianist Jonathan Biss. (HO)

music review

Bolshevik Symphony at TSO: The revolution will be harmonized Add to ...

  • Conductor Peter Oundjian
  • Venue Roy Thomson Hall
  • City Toronto
  • Date Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The people assembled by the thousands, intending to make a peaceful demonstration to their government. They were met by armed troops, who fired indiscriminately on the protesters.

Sound like recent events in Syria? Dmitri Shostakovich was thinking of a much earlier collision of civil discontent and military force when he wrote his Symphony No. 11, subtitled The Year 1905. A slaughter in St. Petersburg in January of that year became a hallowed event in the prehistory of the Bolshevik Revolution.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra and music director Peter Oundjian have invested somewhat heavily in this programmatic work, which was written for the 40th anniversary of the revolution. They have just released a recording of it on TSO Live, the orchestra’s in-house label, and are playing it at Roy Thomson Hall during two regular concerts this week and at a special late-night performance on Saturday for the Luminato festival.

It’s a big vivid slab of socialist realism, full of dramatic depiction and quilted with revolutionary songs from the czarist era (though not God Save the Tsar, sung by many demonstrators that January day). The TSO and Oundjian performed it with careful regard for its evocative atmospheres and many abrupt shifts in tone, from the portentous hush of the opening pages, to the martial uproar of the troops’ assault, to the defiant blare of the conclusion.

Oundjian further dramatized this crowd-rousing piece with a short introductory reading, and the house lights dimmed or came up full as the music grew quiet or loud. Some kind of visuals seemed to be called for – in fact this symphony seemed very much like a film score without images, and like many good film scores, it felt incomplete on its own.

Pianist Jonathan Biss appeared for Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, which he played in suave and relatively intimate fashion, deftly supported by the orchestra. Unfortunately, this concerto didn’t offer much to expose Biss’s deeper talents, and as he romped easily through Schumann’s garrulous finale, I wished a more revealing piece had been chosen.

The concert opened with Toru Takemitsu’s Green for Orchestra (November Steps No. 2), a piece the TSO recorded in 1968 with Seiji Ozawa. This piece felt light and transparent even when the full band engaged with its shard-like harmonies and glinting melodic chords. At times it seemed as if we were being shown several adjacent surfaces at once, as in a cubistic painting. I would have been happy to hear this six-minute marvel played again right away.

The TSO made a colourful, disciplined showing through all this music, apart from a little overplaying in the Shostakovich and some unsteadiness in the strings during the Schumann finale’s brief fugal outbreak. There were fine solos played by several wind principals, including trumpeter Andrew McCandless, English horn player Cary Ebli and clarinetist Yao Guang Zhai, whose deeply lyrical talent deserves front-of-stage exposure, and soon.

The TSO repeats this program at RTH on Thursday, and plays Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 on Saturday at 10:30 p.m., as part of the Luminato festival.

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