Pinchas Zukerman and his National Arts Centre Orchestra made their annual pilgrimage to Toronto in the company of two composers who often are relegated to the lighter side of the symphonic ledger. In the case of Camille Saint-Saens, whose Second Concerto we heard on Saturday, maybe that designation is fair. In the case of Felix Mendelssohn, and his Reformation Symphony, also on the program, it most assuredly is not. And the NAC Orchestra made an effective case for one of them, not so much for the other.
I’m a big fan of French composer Saint-Saens. A child prodigy on the scale of a Mozart, he was born just seven years after Beethoven’s death, but was present (and very angry) at the premiere of The Rite of Spring, a man who spanned half of musical history within a single lifetime. Saint-Saens was a prodigious, frothy, lighthearted talent, but between his Samson and Delilah, Carnival of the Animals, and Organ Symphony, among others, he wrote some fine pieces of music. His Piano Concerto No. 2 sits as a delightful anomaly within this output. Written in a couple of weeks in 1868, it begins with a solo piano playing a Bach-style toccata, moves on a main theme Saint-Saens stole note for note from his then pupil, Gabrielle Faure, and then alternates the most thunderous piano effects with the most elegant lighthearted filigree, balancing moments of sound and fury with others of the most delicate charm, sounding like those elephants in tutus from Fantasia one second and a cartoon pianist roaming up and down the keyboard, hair in disarray, the next. I love it.
Israeli pianist Inon Bartanan has all the technique to make mincemeat of the more robust sections of the Saint-Saens, and it was fully on display Saturday night, but I enjoyed his playing more when he pulled back and found the lyrical, tender moments of the concerto, of which there are plenty. Bartanan is a very athletic pianist, very physical in his playing, but the charm of the Saint-Saens is its whimsy, amidst all the runs and double octaves, its goofy, charming oddness. Some of that was missing, I thought, on Saturday night, and the NAC Orchestra didn’t really help in its rather characterless accompaniment.
It was a different story with Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony, a powerful work written to commemorate a key moment in the history of the Protestant reformation, full of chorales, hymn tunes, and a very powerful spirituality. Here Zukerman and the orchestra tackled this work with authority and conviction, striking a beautiful light touch in the famous Allegro vivace, but coming to terms with the deeper messages in the music. Like most musicians, Zukerman is a different conductor when he’s engaged in the music, and he reminded us that those who consider Mendelssohn a symphonic lightweight are very far off base. I thought Zukerman could still have reached further into the depth of the work, but he produced a very satisfying experience.
The concert began with a Canadian work the NAC orchestra will be taking with them to China next fall, John Estacio’s Brio: Toccata and Fantasy for Orchestra. This was an appropriately celebratory work highlighting the exceptionally fine NAC brass and wind sections. It should make a fine opening for the NAC’s China concerts, showcasing a Canadian orchestra from which one always wants a little more.