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Visiting Scots-born conductor Douglas Boyd led a remarkably vivid programme by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall onWednesday night.
It began with a crimson-hued romp through the Overture to Roman Carnival by Hector Berlioz and ended with a magnificently sculpted performance of an underappreciated epic, Jean Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2.
Sandiwched in between was the Toronto Symphony début of 24-year-old French piano darling Lise de la Salle, her fingers lighting sparks through Maurice Ravel’s G Major Piano Concerto.
Normally the guest soloist is supposed to get the spotlight at a symphony concert, but such was the power of the orchestral performances around her, and so slight the Ravel concerto on this programme, that the many members of the audience who didn’t return after intermission for the Sibelius left without a full musical meal.
Programmed right, the concerto can be a star. The work, premiered 80 years ago, is a wonderful showpiece for the virtuoso pianist who can, like de la Salle, show off her lyrical side. The music is fun, varied, and ripe for an interpreter’s personal touch.
De la Salle was elegant, fleet, dusting the keyboard with an easy technique and unpretentious expressivity. Around her, Boyd teased out orchestral colours in all of their brilliance. He, too, has a lyrical way with a score, setting aside his long baton in the second movement to use a choral conductor’s gestures to get the right sensuous shapes out of each musical line.
But then the Sibelius started and, for me at least, the rest of the programme faded into the shadows.
Sibelius was still in his 30s when he wrote this work, and was just finding his voice as he straddled the Old World of the 19th century and the uncertain promises (including Finnish nationalism) of the 20th. Some parts of the Second Symphony is blatantly late-Romantic extravagance. Other parts, especially the second of the four movements, are all about Nordic austerity.
Torontonians have heard and loved the severely compelling work of Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard, one of the great Sibelius conductors of our time. Boyd, on the other hand, brought an ampleness and warmth to the music that amplified its emotions in all directions, making for a very moving performance.
The orchestra was with Boyd the whole way, its violins singing richly, the cellos and basses providing ample support. The woodwind and brass sections were exceptional. The overall balance provided power without crass punch.
This was music about depths and heights that went straight to the heart — a happy experience in any concert hall.
The programme repeats on Thursday, and is highly recommended, given that we don’t hear either the Ravel or Sibelius pieces nearly as often as we could in this city. For all the details, click here.