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TSO Takes On The Fifth

Tuesday, October 3, 2006
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I had a busy night last Saturday (Sep. 30). Before heading out into the streets for Nuit Blanche, I attended the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s (TSO) performance of Beethoven’s Fourth and Fifth symphonies, part of their season-opening Beethoven Festival.I have been waiting a couple of years for a chance to hear the Fifth performed, as it is one of my favourite pieces of classical music; E. M. Forster famously wrote that it is “the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man,” and it’s hard to argue with him (although overall, the Seventh symphony is my favourite, and then there’s the Ninth . . . but we won’t get into that right now). It is one of those timeless, grand, ubiquitous pieces of musical perfection that, even if you never listen to classical music, you’ve still heard somewhere, sometime before — even if it’s just the first movement, or even just the ‘Da-Da-Da-Dum’ opening of the first movement. Ergo, it wasn’t surprising to see Roy Thomson Hall (RTH) completely filled for the evening’s show, and if everyone else was like me, they all went home happy.

It took a while to get there though. The opener was the Fourth Symphony, which, despite Kevin Bazzana’s assertion in the program notes that ‘while superficially adhering to Classical conventions of form and expression, [it] is disrupted, disturbed, and deepened in unexpected, sometimes shocking ways,’ all I heard was a fairly conventional, Classical sounding symphony (read: boring — although I did hear some things in the first movement that I liked). My problem with Classical-era symphonies is the strict adherence to an ‘Allegro-Adagio-Allegro-Allegro’ sort of progression; the first movement is usually really good and bombastic, but then the second movement is so purposely slow that all the excitement and dramatic tension that had been built up gets lost. This is made even worse if the second movement is meandering, without a strong recurring motif — I almost always get very bored and lost if this is the case. If the rest of the piece is good then that thrilling tension can be regained by the end, but with me it can be hit-and-miss.

Anyway, I sat patiently through the Fourth and the second piece of the night, Gustav Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). This is a short song-cycle scored for orchestra and solo mezzo-soprano, which on this evening was Canadian Susan Platts. I’m not a fan at all of operatic singing, especially when it’s in German (the only exception being the choral from Beethoven’s Ninth symphony — here we go with the Ninth again . . .), so, while there were some interesting musical things in the first song, overall I couldn’t wait for this to be over.

The rest of the crowd seemed to love it though, as evidenced by the two curtain-calls and standing ovation for Platts; although, if you’ve been to RTH lately, you’ll know that sort of adulation has become a nightly occurrence. Every time I go, there’s always a standing ovation for something — everybody cheers and cheers regardless of what just happened on stage. Sounds good right? Except that you’re not likely to see that in most other concert halls around the world; I have a theory that here in Toronto, we’re actually a fairly uneducated audience — the response of the crowd can usually be tied to the piece performed. For example, the reaction on Saturday night to the Fourth symphony — a fairly pedestrian work — was one curtain call for conductor Peter Oundjian and a few people standing up. For the Mahler, there were three curtain calls for Oundjian and Platts, and of course a full standing ovation. This emphatic reaction was because there was a soloist — I’ve found that the RTH crowd always generously rewards a soloist of any kind (overly generously, very often).

Why is this, you might ask? I’ll elaborate on my earlier point about us being an uneducated audience. Because of the tsoundcheck program, a large percentage of the audience on any given night is going to be younger people, whom, in general, don’t know a whole lot about classical music. Of course, there are those who play or study music — who will be learned in the technical aspects and could be considered true connoisseurs — but I think that the majority are probably like me: people in their early-to-late 20s who had a smattering of classical music education in their youth and were always looking for a way to get into it but didn’t know where to start. It can be daunting — over 300 years of musical history to study — but with tsoundcheck you can hear a wide variety of works performed by an internationally renowned orchestra for only $12 a pop, and so it makes it easy to learn. I’ve been going for about three years now, and, while definitely not an expert, I feel I can speak with confidence about what I like and don’t like, and to the quality of certain aspects of the performance.

Which is why it bugs me when everything gets a standing ovation. There are nights where even I can tell that the orchestra was off or screwed something up, and they know it, and you can see the embarrassment on their faces when presenting themselves before the audience which is (inevitably) on its feet. And if there’s a soloist it’s almost like the patrons (again — mostly young people who don’t know a whole lot) feel they have to give them a standing ovation, because to not might hurt his/her feelings (silly Canadians). All this played out exactly as I expected on Saturday night, but since I was so eager at this point for the Fifth (and I had drunk a lot of sake earlier at dinner) I didn’t let it bother me too much.

Then came the grand moment: the intermission over, the lights dimming, Oundjian ascending the podium, raising his arms into the air . . . and bringing them down to begin the piece with all the weight and burden of that most famous of motifs. If you’re not familiar with the work, listen to the first movement here so you’ll be able to follow along.

Now — I’m very picky about the first movement. I have a very specific idea about how it should be played. The section on the first movement from the Wikipedia article describes two contrasting interpretations conductors have about how to play the motif; either in a strict allegro tempo, or in a slower, heavier tone. I prefer the latter. If the motif is played too fast it loses all its air of what Beethoven described as ‘fate knocking at the door;’ it becomes almost tap-dance. Oundjian did it very similar to the performance I linked to above — almost a good tempo, but still a bit too fast for my liking. This is forgivable; however, there was one thing that I feel he did absolutely wrong and it really irked me. At about the 4 1/2 minute mark (depending on the tempo) is a grand recapitulation of the main theme; this must be treated with powerful dramatic force, the fourth and eighth notes of the bar (especially the eighth) held as long as practically possible. This part of the movement is so important to the overall symphony, and if done wrong I feel it ruins the whole performance. They did it wrong, almost exactly like the performance above — way, way, way too fast. They just breezed by it like it was nothing. It should sound like this (there are three examples) — glorious, like the skies are raining fire.

It would take a lot, in my mind, for them to recover from this poor choice in pacing. Luckily, I feel they did. I didn’t get bored during the second movement, which is a testament to the work — it has a very brassy, militaristic aspect, so it’s completely different from the usual Classical-style second movement (it’s actually an andante instead of an adagio). They played it very beautifully, giving full weight to each recapitulation of the theme as if to make up for not doing so in the first movement. Then, for the combined third and forth movements, they just let it all go and the music soared. Oundjian was in fine form by the time of the dramatic drum-roll transition, whipping them into a passionate near-frenzy — the cellists were playing so hard you could hear their bows clacking against the wood — but keeping it all under control and forcefully drawing out each section when most required by the piece. The tension was expertly built through all the false endings until the final triumphant note, when he forcefully brought down his arms and this time the audience leaped to their feet in a completely deserved show of appreciation and adulation.

If not for the one mistake in the first movement, it would have been flawless, but near-flawless is good enough for me. I urge everyone to go see this work performed at least once before they die — it really is a magnificent experience.

Hopefully you catch one as good as the TSO’s. 03971semaj

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Wednesday, October 4, 2006 9:41 am

    Personally, while I enjoy all of Beethoven’s symphonies (my favourite is the 6th, although it’s hard not to love the 9th or the 5th), I enjoy hearing different recordings or performances (not that I get out much…). Personal taste is one thing, but I don’t believe there is one ‘right’ way to play a particular piece of music. I think that’s one of the main reasons to attend a live show, it gives you a chance to hear the music in a way that you might not have heard before.

    Anyway, I’m glad you mostly enjoyed yourself.

  2. James17930 permalink
    Wednesday, October 4, 2006 10:59 am

    Well, for the purposes of an interesting article, I think it helps when I’m unabashedly equivical.

    I agree with you, in terms of most music, but the Fifth is something special — it’s gotta be done just so.

    So.

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