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TSO switches it up for Mahler, Bruch and Kulesha

Violinist Joshua Bell in performance

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra Joshua Bell, violin At Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto on Wednesday

It can take years to change the sound of a symphony orchestra, but you can also do it in a few minutes - just by moving the chairs around. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra made an experiment of this kind on Wednesday, for a program of pieces by Gustav Mahler, Max Bruch and Gary Kulesha.

The second violinists, who usually sit next to the firsts, faced them from the other side of the stage, trading places with the cellos. The double basses also decamped to the opposite wing, displacing the percussion toward the centre rear.

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The immediate effect was to make the distribution of bass and treble sounds more symmetrical, with violins on both sides, and the lower strings balanced on the opposite side of the stage by trombone, tuba and bassoons. From my seat in the mezzanine, the shift also seemed to give the bass more depth, and to allow more space for the alto sound of the violas.

This configuration was common during the 19th century, and is clearly assumed by major pieces of a certain age, including Mahler's Symphony No. 5, the biggest piece on Wednesday's program. When the second violins swapped melodic lines with the firsts in this symphony's famous adagietto, it was obvious that Mahler was making a spatial choice, which is lost when the seconds are in their usual place.

This symphony is an immense and challenging piece, and often a thrilling one in the TSO's performance. In the two movements of Part One, Mahler's tragic narrative was at times almost unbearably intense, and after a century still shockingly bold - for example, when a huge brassy affirmation in the second movement dwindled down to a few anxiety-racked chords. The same movement included a wonderfully intuitive performance of a quiet arioso for cellos, which became perhaps the most exquisite episode in the whole symphony.

The TSO brasses made a robust and eloquent showing in their important roles, with trumpeter Andrew McCandless and horn soloist Neil Deland playing their parts extremely well. But overall, conductor Peter Oundjian would have done well to curtail the brass sound, which often overwhelmed parts of equal importance in the strings, and sometimes made accompaniment figures unreasonably present.

The long scherzo never really came together due to subtle but persistent disagreements between sections about the rhythmic character of this music. The adagietto was lovely in parts, but overdeliberate, and the finale made a great boisterous show of everyone's talents without quite carrying off the happy ending Mahler strained to achieve.

Violinist Joshua Bell appeared for a dazzling performance of Bruch's Scottish Fantasy, in which robust Scottish tunes are decked out with the spun sugar of virtuoso ornament. The funereal opening and Bell's impassioned first episodes were the best thing about this performance, in which Oundjian's prosaic accompaniment was often out of sync with the mercurial soloist. Gary Kulesha's Torque, heard earlier this year, opened the show with four minutes of music that was effervescent without becoming entirely weightless.

The TSO still has no permanent concertmaster; that chair was taken on Wednesday by Jonathan Crow, a wonderful Canadian violinist and former concertmaster of l'Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. The prominent harp parts in the Bruch and Mahler pieces were taken by Heidi Gorton, who got three solo bows for her efforts and a personal salute from the violin soloist, but no mention in the program.

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The TSO performs Mahler's Symphony No. 5 at Roy Thomson Hall on Saturday at 10:30 p.m., as part of the Luminato Festival.

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