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Review: Adams and Lindberg shine at Toronto Symphony’s New Creations festival opener

By Michael Vincent on March 2, 2014

 

Music Director Peter Oundjian conducting "Dr. Atomic" by John Adams, photo by Josh Clavir
Music Director Peter Oundjian conducting “Dr. Atomic” by John Adams, photo by Josh Clavir

Last night marked the launch of the 10th annual New Creations Festival with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, which despite a surprise snowstorm, was very well attended.

Saturday night’s highlight came from the Canadian premiere of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony, which is arguably his best work since “Harmonielehre.”

The TSO handled the scores fortifying momentum and jagged rhythmic design with confidence. The piece shifted and turned from masterfully orchestrated string tapestries to darkly harmonic sections that interjected fitful bursts from the brass. Welcome exclamations came from soloists, particularly from principal trumpeter Andrew McCandless in the Oppenheimer’s signature “Batter My Heart” theme.

The work was organized into 3 sections distilled from a series of incongruent themes from Adams’ “Doctor Atomic” opera. It results in the unique representation of the emotional energy of the historic events recounted in the work. Despite Adams’ not being present due to his flight being delayed from the inclement weather, it was well received.

The opening work of the evening came from the assuredly talented, Kevin Lau.

This marks his second commission from the TSO since joining the organization as the RBC affiliate composer last year and he is clearly a composer with a lot to say.

“Down the Rivers of the Windfall Light” was inspired by a poem by Dylan Thomas and came across as a kind of film score set on the premise of the poem. It began with a lush opening that sounded smooth and glassy, then led towards a series of ascending passages supported by plenty of colour from the winds, brass and percussion. It also featured a number of brief motifs played via solos recurring from various sections of the orchestra.

Unfortunately it all came across as a bit disjointed. The ideas were interesting in themselves, but one could not stop long enough to appreciate them before Lau changed gears by introducing new material. In particular, the solo sections were consistently stifled by brevity.

The evening closed with an appearance by pianist Yefim Bronfman, performing Magnus Lindgerg’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

One could not help but to notice the score sitting on the piano desk looking more like a library book, rather than the typical bound score. “This is going to be a lot of notes,” whispered someone from the seat behind me.

The 32-minute monster concerto is a heaving, opaque work in three contrasting sections that unfolds uninterrupted. It is somewhat of a commitment to process, and opens with broad lines and harmonies in the low register supported by quietly waning stirs in the orchestra.

Bronfman was clearly up to the task, and was a joy to witness. He extolled dense chords that leaped across the keyboard in thunderous cascades and sputtering arpeggios. His head jolting under the knuckle busting counterpoint that was equal parts astonishing and crazed. The piano barely got out alive, but the audience was clearly impressed.

During the mid-section, it was particularly endearing to see the short duet with Bronfman and Jonathan Crow, who contributed a brief yet significant statement towards the brave resolve of the work.

During the pre-concert show in the North Lobby of Roy Thompson Hall, a small audience was treated to a short set of works by Ann Southam and Martin Bresnick.

This was a nice teaser for the main draw. Wesley Shen performed the late Southam’s brand of Canadian minimalism with an even, hypnotic tone that spoke to the perpetual nature of her work.

When anything lasts for a decade or longer, it starts to become tradition, and it is great to see the New Creations Festival entrenching itself as a permanent fixture of Toronto’s music scene.

 

Michael Vincent

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The New Creations Festival runs until March 7th with events on March 5th, also featuring works by John Adams (featured composer), who will also act as guest conductor. The pre-concerts are also promising and will feature the Gryphon Trio and St Lawrence String quartet respectively. Click here for more information

 

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