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Concert review: Pianist Joyce Yang fails to dazzle in Toronto Symphony Orchestra début

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Joyce Yang made her Toronto Symphony début with Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

The Toronto Symphony’s second programme of the season looked like a can’t miss affair, featuring two Russian warhorses to draw in classical music fans. But the first performance at Roy Thomson Hall on Thursday night failed to live up to the promise.

Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is one of the world’s favourite star vehicles, but Korean-born pianist Joyce Yang treated this 1901 virtuoso showpiece as a chamber work rather than as a means to dazzle a receptive audience with the dexterity and power of her fingers.

As Yang noodled away discreetly at the piano, occasionally rousing herself to the requisite volume for Rachmaninov’s crashiest chords, Toronto Symphony music director Peter Oundjian busied himself with a multitude of orchestral details, teasing out colours and textures in an effort to make the music sound fresh.

The combined effect of distracted conductor and shrinking soloist made for a strangely disjointed performance that often lacked forward momentum.

Although it was well played in a technical sense — and the Toronto Symphony strings sounded particularly warm and full — this was probably the least interesting of dozens of live performances I’ve heard of this concerto.

But I must be in the minority, as the almost-capacity hall gave Yang a rousing standing ovation, which earned an even more introverted interpretation of a Liszt reminiscence of a Chopin song as an encore.

Oundjian does symphonic suites such as Gustav Holst’s The Planets and Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations well, finding the right character for each section, yet keeping a larger structure and flow in mind. He and the Toronto Symphony recorded a nice interpretation of Maurice Ravel’s 1922 orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s 1874 piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition for the tsoLive label a few seasons ago, so one would have expected a polished reprise on Thursday night.

What we did hear was vivid, with heightened dynamics and powerful choruses from the brass and woodwinds. But the frequent twists and turns in the score, which takes its listeners though the musical depiction of a picture gallery, were a bit ragged. Oundjian had a clear sense of where everyone was going next, but not everyone in the orchestra was always along for the same walk.

As a warmup to all the musical drama promised for the rest of the evening, we heard a buoyant, tidy rendition of Shenanigan, a 4-minute orchestral hoedown Windsor native Kati Agócs wrote for the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra in 2010. It’s a fun, accessible piece that shows off a symphony orchestra’s full breadth, and deserves to be heard again.

The programme repeats, with after-concert extras in honour of Nuit Blance, on Saturday night. You’ll find all the details here.

John Terauds

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