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The TSO hosts Saariaho, Crow, and Shostakovich

A satisfying, if unsurprising, tour of two giants of the symphonic genre.

WORDS BY ARLAN VRIENS | Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto

JAN 29, 2023 | COMMUNITY

Tarmo Peltokoski and the TSO
Jonathan Crow and the TSO

An unfamiliar face guided the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) through some rather more familiar works on Sunday afternoon at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall. Under the idiosyncratic baton of young Finnish conductor Tarmo Peltokoski – here making his North American debut – the orchestra made a convincing case for the first piece on the program, Kaija Saariaho’s Ciel d’hiver (2010). Aficionados of Saariaho’s music would recognize her characteristic language of complex, rippling sonic textures, launched in this case by crystalline figures from piccolo and harp. The titular winter sky was well rendered by the orchestra, encouraged by the understated conducting of Peltokoski, who often stood statue-like with only his right hand in motion. Despite its bleak colours and occasionally glacial pace, the work was well-received, holding the audience in a long and suspenseful silence after its final notes died away.

TSO concertmaster Jonathan Crow gave a commanding performance of Johannes Brahms’s Violin Concerto Op. 77 in the grand tradition of the 20th-century masters like Oistrakh and Milstein. Despite the lingering 19th century quip that this concerto was written “not for the violin, but against the violin,” there were few signs of Crow encountering any trouble, and his comfort with his home orchestra led to an exceptionally nuanced blend between the solo and orchestral parts. Peltokoski’s approach to the introduction of the first movement felt almost ponderous for its heavy legato and relaxed tempo, but both soloist and orchestra settled into a more usual pace as the movement progressed. Crow brought plenty of fire to the development section’s dramatic shifts across the violin’s register, and a silvery, vulnerable sound in the movement’s more sensitive themes.

The second movement took a forward direction, resisting the temptation to wallow too gratuitously in the Adagio’s many charms; the oboe solo in the beginning was especially well played, setting a lyrical and sensitive tone that carried throughout. The third movement – a boisterous and occasionally dangerous celebration – entered with swagger and humour, spurring the heretofore sedate Peltokoski into a variety of dances and hops. Crow made good use of the bow’s more percussive articulation options, and the orchestra found charming moments to marry Viennese rubato with the movement’s Hungarian flair. More than one audience member was overheard applying the term “distracting” to Peltokoski’s volatile and occasionally unusual gestures, though a dash of eccentricity wasn’t completely unwelcome in such a familiar work.

Jonathan Crow and the TSO

The second half of the program featured Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 Op. 47, another warhorse of its genre. Amid already muddled historical questions of whether Shostakovich wrote this as Soviet propaganda or as concealed subversion, performances of his music today find new and contradictory resonances within the current geopolitical climate. Whatever point of view listeners brought to the concert hall, they are unlikely to have left unmoved. All of Shostakovich’s cinematic bombast, sarcasm, and pathos were as impactful as ever, thanks to standout performances by every section of the orchestra; notable moments included the meaty sound of the double basses and celli at the beginning of the second movement, which contrasted with piquant playing from the woodwinds. The highlight of the entire evening was the elegiac third movement, a bleak Largo with outbursts of anguish and passion. The orchestra found an admirably wide dynamic range, with string tremolos so minute and quiet that sound seemed to be emerging mysteriously from a still photograph. Though often interrupted by an audience which seemed to be universally battling a serious cough, the stillness of the third movement was blasted away for good by trombones, kicking off a rowdy and chaotic fourth movement. The orchestra careened to the end with appropriate abandon, culminating in the sinister and faintly absurd repeated string notes that conclude the symphony.