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review

Sir Andrew Davis conducts the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.Jag Gundu/TSO

Amadeus has a lot to answer for. The Academy Award-winning movie, based on Peter Shaffer’s play (in turn inspired by Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri), created an image of Mozart held firmly within popular imagination. It’s that of a broke party boy either poisoned or worked to death by a jealous rival who composed his own Requiem in highly mysterious circumstances. Such apocryphal stories have made for good marketing of his music. As the Toronto Symphony Orchestra proved on Wednesday however, Mozart’s work, especially that composed toward (or at) the end of his life, needs no such hype. The concerts continue Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Roy Thomson Hall.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major, K. 543, composed in 1788, is the first of three final symphonies done in rapid succession. TSO conductor laureate Sir Andrew Davis led a performance that looked backward (to Handel) and forward (to Beethoven), and remained rooted firmly in its time (via Haydn), to offer an interesting reflection on both the development of the symphony as a form and its range of expressive possibilities in terms of orchestration.

This was a performance marked by gentility and grace, giving special prominence to the interplay between woodwinds and strings. The symphony marks the first of Mozart’s mature works that did not make use of an oboe, but instead transferred higher sonorities onto the clarinet. Long-time TSO principal clarinet Joaquin Valdepenas and the woodwinds section provided clear thematic development between the first and second movements, with Davis emphasizing syncopations with precise gestures.

The rhythms of the Landler (an energetic Austrian folk dance) of the third movement were less reminiscent of the beer hall jigs from which they derived than directly linked to the colours Haydn later used in his oratorio The Seasons in 1801. This was a performance of great elegance and style, qualities which extended into the TSO’s performance of Mozart’s Requiem, K. 626.

Mozart was commissioned to write the Requiem not by some mysterious stranger but by aristocrat Franz von Walsegg, and composed a small portion of it before his death in 1792, with his pupil Franz Xaver Suessmayr filling the considerable holes.

Davis, who is also music director and principal conductor at the Lyric Opera Chicago, showed his operatic side, with careful control of voice and orchestra, emphasizing the work’s contrapuntal harmonies and underlining its links with Handel’s Messiah, particularly through the Lacrimosa and Sanctus movements.

Soloists Jenavieve Moore (soprano), Jillian Bonner (mezzo-soprano), Charles Sy (tenor), and Trevor Eliot Bowes (bass), members of the Equilibrium Young Artists Initiative all had projection issues amidst the orchestra’s textural swells. But Davis took this in stride, integrating the voices within the orchestra and evoking soft, thoughtful colours less concerned with hellfire and brimstone and more interested in meandering brooks and shimmering valleys. Thus the vocalists, together with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, were smart sonic extensions of the orchestration, with Davis underlining the theme of integration within a divine hereafter.

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