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No magic here: TSO falls flat with concert devoted to fairy tales

Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Roy Thomson Hall
Thursday, April 11, 2013

For a concert devoted to the music of fairy tales, there was very little magic in Roy Thomson Hall on Thursday night.

Guest conductor James Gaffigan presented a TSO program bookended by two pieces devoted to the fantastic – Ravel's Mother Goose Suite to begin, and Stravinsky's Firebird Suite to end. In between, soprano Measha Brueggergosman joined the orchestra in works of a somewhat similar character – Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915, told in the voice of a five-year-old Southern boy, and four of Henri Duparc's luxurious, decadent, songs.

The evening should have been a delight for the imagination and the ear alike. It wasn't.

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The problems began with the Ravel. Although actually scored for a relatively small orchestra, Ravel's excursion into the world of Mother Goose is told in the most vivid of orchestral colours. We can almost see and feel the exotic Pagodas in one part of the score, hear the growls of the Beast in conversation with his Beauty in another, witness the antics of Tom Thumb in a third. Bright, stark, over-the-top illustrations, like the ones in our favourite kid's books, are what we want in the Ravel. What we got instead were the washed-out colours and fuzzy reproductions we might find in a quickly produced paperback, lacking definition and character. It wasn't the individual players who were responsible – the TSO is full of fine players, with the winds especially excellent Thursday night – it was the lack of a firm, deliberate hand on the wand that led the group.

The same was true of the Stravinsky that ended the program. The Firebird was the first of Stravinsky's great ballet scores in the first decade of the 20th century, the one that cemented his reputation. The Suite he created from the ballet is full of unique orchestral effects, wonderful melodies, arch rhythmic devices – the full range of stylistic tricks of one of the great masters of modern orchestral style. But the TSO's Firebird lacked, well, fire. Some parts were too fast, others too slow. Even though you can't entirely hide the beauties of the score, no matter what you do with it, I had the feeling we were constantly skipping over the surface of the music, rather than penetrating within. It was smoothed out where it should have been jagged, sharp, surprising.

Things got a bit better when Brueggergosman joined the orchestra. She was at her best in the four Duparc songs, set to texts by Baudelaire and Théophile Gautier, full of the intense decadent turbulence of the late 19th century. Brueggergosman used the full range of her expressive voice – clear and powerful in its upper edge, thrilling in its lower – to bring the various emotions of the texts to life. She entered into the spirit of each song and brought it to us.

The Samuel Barber Knoxville: Summer of 1915, set to an excerpt from James Agee's beautiful novel A Death in the Family, fared less well, mainly because the balance between orchestra and soloist seemed off – Brueggergosman was simply hard to hear for much of the piece, and consequently the subtleties of her interpretation of this melancholy but uplifting text were hard to fathom. However, even with these limitations, her artistic presence in the Barber was undeniable and, as always, unforgettable.

Magic at Roy Thomson Hall has been in plentiful supply this season. Maybe I was expecting too much. Or maybe it was just the Rumpelstiltskin in me, but on this night of all nights, I found the magic had fled.

At Roy Thomson Hall on Saturday at 8 p.m.

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