by Anthony Kershaw
Sept 19, 2013. Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto, ON — Season opening nights like to showcase a star soloist. Last year, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra unleashed Canadian violinist James Ehnes in an extraordinary performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto. Tonight’s guest was the American cellist, Alisa Weilerstein, another extraordinary young artist. The concert was conducted by the Toronto Symphony’s much loved music director, Peter Oundjian.
Weilerstein was barely in her teens when she debuted with the Cleveland Orchestra. She studied in Cleveland, and later, Russian History at Columbia University. The entire family is musical — father Donald Weilerstein is the lead violinist of the famous Cleveland Quartet.
Weilerstein chose Elgar’s dramatic and elegiac Cello Concerto (1919). This coincides with her debut recording on Decca of the Elgar (Barenboim/Staatskapelle Berlin).
This is Weilerstein’s party piece and she played the heck out of it. None of its difficulties presented any problems — long lines, lightning fast spicatto, pizzicatos — everything was musical and projected with a beautiful tone. Weilerstein embodies the cello; she is the most elegant cellist I’ve seen in concert. A veritable Madame Suggia from the Augustus John painting. Same red gown, too. As such, she was both a visual and musical treat.
The opening piece on the concert, in honour of the 100th anniversary of Benjamin’s Britten’s birth, was ‘The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’, Op. 34 (1946), subtitled ‘Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell’. This happy concerto for orchestra is one of Britten’s finest works and is emblematic of his total control of the variation form. It received a good performance by the orchestra, with the associate principals time to shine as soloists. Christopher Gongos, horn and Keith Atkinson, oboe were especially sensitive to Peter Oundjian’s very musical persuasions. As a section, the clarinets and trombones were pretty fabulous.
In the Britten and the incredibly persnickety accompaniment to the Elgar, a few inconsistencies crept in, melodically and rhythmically. Oundjian has transformed this band over ten years to a North American powerhouse, easily ranking in the top one or two (Pittsburgh?) after the Big Five. Yes, ahead of Minnesota, SFO, Atlanta, Seattle, Cincinnati, etc. Dare I say, even slightly ahead of the slightly disgruntled Montreal Symphony? We’re a lucky bunch here in The Big Smoke. So, I don’t begrudge a little slackness after what was obviously a long and restful summer for the musicians. Lord knows, they deserved it after the superb 2012 season.
For the opening two works, it seemed that Oundjian was trying a little too hard. He was all shoulders, emphasized by a tight fitting cotton biker jacket! Why oh why do some conductors these days dress like aging rock stars? Are you reading Andris Nelsons (new Boston Symphony music director)? A lot of Oundjian’s usual elegance was missed as he steered the orchestra through the tricky passages. He was almost Andrew Davis like in his effervescence. Things returned to normal in the second half.
Oundjian and his orchestra gave us a gorgeous sounding, very musical and dynamic performance of Antonín Dvořák’s wonderful Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, op. 70 (1885). Completely in the shadow of the melodically gifted 8th and the iconic 9th, the 7th owes much to Dvořák’s admiration for Brahms. In fact, much of the opening movement could be called Brahms’ ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Yet, it remains in the shadows. This wonderful performance (with fabulous solos from Neil Deland, horn) made the sun shine and bodes well for things to come in the new season.
Photo credit: Toronto Symphony Orchestra