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Music: Concert review

New concertmaster and old violin make a little romance Add to ...

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra

  • Emanuel Ax, piano
  • Jonathan Crow, violin
  • At Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto on Thursday

Shall we give full credit to Peter Oundjian and his seven years as music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra? Or chalk it up to a special alignment of the planets over Roy Thomson Hall on Thursday night? Whatever the cause, the TSO was on a roll in an all-German program that went from strength to strength. Of course, it didn’t hurt that they had a little help from their friends.

The first friend to appear, violinist Jonathan Crow, is perhaps better described as a new member of the family. A tall, slender man of 33 years, he was recently appointed to the TSO’s concertmaster’s chair – a position that’s been vacant ever since Jacques Israelievitch retired from the orchestra in 2008. Thursday’s concert served as Crow’s official introduction to the TSO’s audience.

Seated at the front of the first violins, the concertmaster is crucial to the smooth functioning of the orchestra – but is only rarely heard in a soloist capacity. So for this occasion, the TSO gave him a solo to play: Beethoven’s Romance No. 2 in F Major.

It’s not a virtuosic work, nor does it reveal everything that one might wish to know about a violinist. But it does demand sensitivity and sweetness – and Crow demonstrated that he has these qualities. It was a lovely performance, with Crow soaring on a 1738 Guarneri del Gesu instrument (on loan as a perk of his new job), while Oundjian ceded the interpretive space Crow needed to shine.

The next friend was the pianist Emanuel Ax – no stranger to TSO audiences – who brought to the stage a Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 that had both steak and sizzle.

Ax is a big fellow, built for comfort – but with plenty of agility and power at his disposal. His command of this concerto was technically rock-solid, running the gamut from thundering octaves to subtle and delicate nuances in tone. Even when playing softly, there was an edge-of-your-seat immediacy to his touch, and an energy that never flagged.

Best of all, he and Oundjian seemed entirely in agreement in matters of interpretation, mapping the concerto out to achieve an imposing architectural structure. From the work’s portentous opening to its triumphal conclusion, they worked closely together, constructing long phrases with weighty inevitability – or suddenly making arrestingly abrupt shifts in tempo or dynamics.

The TSO’s musicians responded to this vision with fine playing. Especially noteworthy was the rich, warm tone in the strings at the opening of the second movement, and the dazzling orchestral virtuosity of the third.

More Brahms followed: his Symphony No. 1, which gave Oundjian and the orchestra the opportunity to build on the Brahmsian glories of the concerto. And they did this with a magnificent performance that, from the first note, plunged the audience into a compelling drama. Soloists were memorable – oboist Sarah Jeffrey in the second movement, and clarinetist Joaquin Valdepenas in the third. As well, the whole brass section brought lustre to the finale. But it was the orchestra as a whole that made this performance consistently refined and polished.

Oundjian, with his clear, economical baton technique, was securely in the driver’s seat, ably shaping the phrasing, balance and textures. (He had a score on his music stand, but didn’t appear to need it much.)

Was anything amiss on this fine Thursday evening? Only this: Roy Thomson Hall was merely two-thirds full. Let’s hope that some buzz is generated, and the TSO gets the full houses it deserves at its weekend performances.

The TSO repeats this program on Saturday at 8 p.m. (Roy Thomson Hall) and Sunday at 3 p.m. (George Weston Recital Hall).

Special to The Globe and Mail

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