La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 28 October 2010

TSO: “Unexpected” Program Needed Gravy

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

Name recognition does help: I’ll be the first to admit I only went to Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Oct. 27 
“Haydn & Bruckner” concert because of two names. No, not Haydn and Bruckner, but Thomas Dausgaard and Marc-Andre Hamelin.

First off, Dausgaard and Hamelin didn’t disappoint, but the program itself did: Haydn’s relatively unimportant D-major piano concerto and Bruckner’s slightly awkward Sixth Symphony, separated by what felt like an unusually short intermission.

Music director Peter Oundjian had the night off, leaving the podium to Dausgaard, the Danish conductor whose lanky and animated body language were comical to watch and were my source of stimulation for the night.

Oundjian left a note in the program: “We like to do the unexpected from time to time at the TSO.” By “unexpected” he meant having Hamelin, who is best known for his “incredible technique and expertise with big Romantic repertoire” (I’d add contemporary to that), play Haydn, who is not known for his piano concertos. Then we have Bruckner’s Sixth, which “stands out in his output as possibly the sunniest and brightest of the nine symphonies”. To top it off, the concert opened with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, “one of his most popular works” but “a little unusual” for the composer.

Individually speaking, each of the three works may be a little off-the-wall in one way or another, but nevertheless worth hearing on concert stages and on recordings. They each received fine performances. One single “Bravo!” was shouted at the end of the Bruckner. A minority gave a standing ovation for Hamelin. A larger minority cheered for Dausgaard and the orchestra. The TSO was on its best behaviour. It was a good concert.

Collectively, albeit with good intention to achieve what I’m not exactly sure, the “unexpected” — dull — programming really squeezed out the last drop of live classical music enjoyment for me. For most people, making an effort to attend a concert after a long day’s work is much like going to a restaurant (or else you can simply put on a CD at home and order in). The combination of this program felt like a Rob Ford “stop the gravy train” meal, which I would have substituted for a tuna sandwich with instant noodles. Simply put, the program lacked a certain appeal and kick, and this showed partially in the number of empty seats in Roy Thomson Hall.
Hopefully the Oct. 28 performance was better attended, because it’s a shame to have two stunning A-list performers on stage doing all sorts of wonderful things — Hamelin’s Haydn was exquisite, poetic and technically flawless; Dausgaard, who conducted the Haydn without a baton, delivered a riveting, expressive and memorable Bruckner — and not have more people come out to hear them.

We all want to do the unexpected once in a while, but when it comes to programming, pass the gravy, please.

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