by Anthony Kershaw
Peter Oundjian, conductor
Dame Evelyn Glennie, percussion
John Adams: Short Ride in a Fast Machine
Vincent Ho: The Shaman — Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra
John Adams: Harmonielehre
March 2, 2011. Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto, ON — I was very excited to attend the opening concert of the Toronto Symphony’s New Creations Festival. I’ve attended lots of new music festivals, but none had the excitement, the almost rock concert palpability of the New Creations Festival. A star was in town. And Torontonians showed up. The hall was packed. John Adams is in attendance for performances of his works over the eight night festival.
Adams is not the flavour of the month. He has been writing brilliantly accessible music for well over 30 years in a ‘minimalist’ style, but infused with Romantic harmonies and elegiac melodies. His operas include the seminal Nixon in China, the recent Met sensation, Doctor Atomic, and the controversial (and stunningly beautiful) The Death of Klinghoffer. His first orchestral ‘hit’ was the 1977 string composition, Shaker Loops, later came Tromba Lontano and the oft requested Short Ride in a Fast Machine. This last piece opened the program tonight and was followed by Vincent Ho’s Percussion Concerto and closed with what I consider the greatest orchestral work of the past 30 years, Adams’ Harmonielehre.
The Toronto Symphony is to be commended for adding a pre concert talk by Adams (he also chatted with conductor Oundjian on stage before Harmonielehre. It was both entertaining and informative) and a post concert party with music by the superb Roberto Occhipinti Ensemble, a jazz group made up of some Toronto jazz/session superstars. The jazz was a lovely end to a fascinating musical evening.
Dame Evelyn Glennie is the world’s superstar percussionist. As Ho mentioned in his pre performance chat, she’s a force of nature. She’s also profoundly deaf (since 12 years old) and plays in stocking feet to feel the vibrations of the instruments. Glennie mentioned in a recent interview that she uses her whole body to feel the resonance and vibrations. That she is a brilliantly accomplished percussionist who plays incredibly complex music to a peak standard, is miraculous. She deserves her Dame.
Ho’s Concerto was written for Glennie to open the Winnipeg Symphony’s new music festival. It’s a tour de force for the soloist, with some heated rhythmic interjections by the accompanying orchestra. Visually, it’s a treat. As for a memorable musical experience, not quite as much. But, for percussion fans and Glennie enthusiasts, it’s a must see/hear. The performance by all could not have been more committed.
Both Adams works were very well played by the orchestra. Rarely have I heard the incredibly difficult rhythmic complexities of Harmonielehre played with such accuracy. Compare the live BBC Symphony or Concertgebouw performances with John Adams conducting — on these occasions, the TSO betters both in purely technical terms. Musically, however, I felt that Oundjian missed some glorious opportunities. At times, it felt like ‘head down, see you at the end’! This could be due to minimal rehearsal time or unfamiliarity with the score. I’d like to hear a third or fourth performance in a great hall. It could well better my current favourite recording, David Robertson with his St Louis band.
Oundjian and the orchestra relaxed in the middle movement, The Anfortas Wound. A harrowing, Mahler-inspired (10th Adagio) depiction of the Arthurian Legend. Here, conductor and orchestra were at one with the arching melodies and complex harmonies. Andrew McCandless’ trumpeting was especially fine — controlled and with just a hint of vibrato.
Many soloists shone through the relative murk of Thomson Hall’s acoustic, a testament to their projection and ensemble. Patrica Kreuger on piano was a star throughout the night, Camille Watts’ flawless piccolo, Jeffrey Beecher’s beautiful bass playing (why only six basses in such a massive work as Harmonielehre?), and the faultless horn of Neil Deland, especially his superb high register playing in the opening movement. And once again, Deland’s section helped to make the Brucknerian apotheosis at the close of the final movement magisterial.
The New Creations Festival continues to March 10. The great music, excellent performances, and party atmosphere are worthy of your time and money.
Audiophilia review of the Rattle/CBSO/EMI CD recording of Harmonielehre