What, exactly, is it that convinces an audience member that they have just witnessed something special?
It’s a combination of factors, of course, but the concrete that cements it all into place is commitment, a sense that the musician or actor or reader has focused every fibre and neuron on their performance.
Thursday’s matinée audience at Roy Thomson Hall witnessed this this unconditional commitment from both visiting conductor Thomas Dausgaard and cellist Alecia Weilerstein, as they performed with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. The experience suggests that Saturday evening’s repeat is a must-see for anyone who missed the first concert.
Dausgaard, a favourite TSO guest for nearly a decade, led a program that blended the familiar — the Symphony No.2 finished in 1877 by Johannes Brahms — with Dmitri Shostakovich’s daring, 1959 Cello Concerto No. 1, and the unfamiliar – Sphinx, a short, evocative tone poem from 1910 by Danish composer Rud Langgaard.
The conductor gave each piece its own shape, texture and momentum.
But Weilerstein stole the show in an electrifying performance of the Shostakovich concerto.
The piece, written for late Russian cello legend Mstislav Rostropovich, opens with an obsessive frenzy, sounding as if the cellist has turned into a Lady Macbeth desperately, anxiously trying to cleanse her bloodstained hands.
Weilerstein was all cascading hair and flying digits as she charged along, with Dausgaard and orchestra in hot, rhythmically acute pursuit.
But the real magic of Weilerstein’s memorable interpretation came with the slow, melancholy second movement and its long cadenza. Here, the cellist showed how a musician can use silence to the same powerful effect as the notes themselves.
Her pacing was slow, deliberate, keeping her audience perched on the edge of their seats.
As the cadenza neared its close, the cellist gradually wound the energy back up, welcoming back the orchestra in a final wave of furious playing.
This is not an easy piece to like if you happen to favour sweet melodies, but Weilerstein and Dausgaard, working as one, turned it into a masterful showcase of tension and release. And the conductor made the orchestral accompaniment as transparent as a score by Mozart.
The Brahms symphony paled in comparison, despite being gorgeously paced and textured by the Danish conductor, and executed with equally great clarity by the orchestra.
Brahms’ symphonies have been cornerstones of the repertoire since they were written. They’ve been recorded more times than any of us would care to count, yet the music still presents its special mysteries to anyone who attempts to lead it, or listen to it seriously. It’s because there is so much happening under the surface that, with just a few choices, a conductor can significantly alter what his or her audience hears.
The trick — one that Dausgaard pulled off impressively — is to maintain flow and shape on the surface, while highlighting some of the repeated and endlessly modified musical motifs with which Brahms fills out his orchestration.
The visual art metaphor would be of someone who has to simultaneously sculpt and model the medium.
Sphinx, the afternoon’s opening tone poem, was a nice prelude to concert’s intertwined journey of light and dark.
Dausgaard introduced the piece himself, suggesting that there is a lot more to hear from an early 20th century composer neglected in this part of the world. But it was the nicely shaped journey from impassive exterior to turbulent interior and then back again that made the best argument for hearing more music by Rud Langgaard (1893-1952).
Denmark’s Langgaard Foundation has an extensive website on the composer, his music and its context. You can check it out here.
For more information on Saturday’s concert, click here.
Langgaard wrote his first symphony, an hour long, at age 17. Here is the opening movement, as recorded by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Dausgaard, its conductor laureate: