Review: TSO offers businesslike Shostakovich with some bumps along the way

Sir Andrew Davis led the TSO in Ottawa Monday evening. Photo: Jag Gundu

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra performed in Ottawa on Monday night, the first stop on a quick-march mini-tour that took them to Montreal on Tuesday before heading back to play the same program before a hometown audience on Wednesday. Leading the orchestra was conductor laureate Andrew Davis, who has been filling on the podium while the TSO waits for the newest artistic director, Gustavo Gimeno, who will start next season.

Karen Gomyo was along for the ride as guest soloist, performing Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1, a glittering Fabergé egg of a work that demands a huge expressive range, from ethereal to barbaric. Gomyo is a fiery, intense violinist who wears her heart on her sleeve, and her musicality is both intelligent and sincere. 

I’ve heard Gomyo play absolutely magnificently on several occasions, but on Monday she appeared to be having a rare off-night. Her intonation wasn’t centred; there’s a quiet conversation with the flutes very early in the first movement where Gomyo was almost painfully sharp. Her sound seemed thin and unfocused at times, like in the fluttering of high, pianissimi trills that end the piece in a puff of white smoke. No doubt impressed by her convincing, emotionally committed performance, the audience did not seem to be bothered by these technical issues in the least, the shouts of bravo starting almost before the last note died away.

I’ve always liked Davis. Businesslike and somewhat phlegmatic, preferring to direct without a stick, he isn’t the most exciting conductor to watch. But he’s efficient, effective, clear and knows when to simply get out of the way. 

Shostakovich’s epic Symphony No. 10 provided ample material for showcasing the orchestra’s strength, especially its big, hard-edged sound and flamboyant attack. Davis built the almost half hour-long first movement to an almost unbearable pitch, keeping the music dragged down by its own morose brooding. The second movement kept the tension high with its snarling, militaristic bombast. The mood gradually lightened through the last two movements, with Davis opting to end  the rush of the final allegro in optimism rather than irony. There were fine solos from the principal horn and bassoon.

The concert began with a world premiere: Canadian composer Emilie LeBel’s unsheltered, a TSO commission. In her introductory remarks, LeBel said she was inspired by the recent Alberta wildfires and the impact of the climate emergency on our sense of safety. 

For a piece sparked by a natural disaster, not much happens in unsheltered. It’s comprised of dense, sustained, occasionally slippery chords laid brick-by-brick over short bursts of dully clanging, clattering percussion. The music is almost oppressively static, but LeBel avoids stupefaction by incorporating interesting colours and textures: low, growling woodwinds, gongs, a phasic, telescoped canon for two trumpets. 

The concert repeats at the Maison Symphonique in Montreal on Nov. 12, and at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall on Nov. 13.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.