Yo-Yo Ma Celebrates 100 Years of the TSO
All North-American program sets the tone for the TSO’s future
WORDS BY MICHAEL ZARATHUS-COOK | Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto
NOV 16, 2022 | COMMUNITY
Jeremy Dutcher and Sarah Prosper | Photo by Jag Gundu : Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Yo-Yo Ma and Gustavo Gimeno | Photo by Jag Gundu : Toronto Symphony Orchestra.jpeg
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra | Photo by Jag Gundu : Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Why are we here? And by here I mean Roy Thomson Hall on any given night that the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) is performing. Why are we preserving this music? Why, as taxpayers, are we contributing to the perpetuation of this organisation’s competitiveness on the world stage? These are of course questions that are taken for granted, and were perhaps settled at a much earlier point in the TSO’s 100-year history. Yet, it seems these are precisely the type of questions that concerts such as this Celebrate 100: A Gala Evening with Yo-Yo Ma examines within the context of a centennial celebration. The answers yielded are as multivarious as the number of tickets sold, but the overwhelming sentiment was singular: nothing else does what this music can do, and the way we do it here cannot be replicated anywhere else. And after a century as an ensemble - one that began with false starts and a grassroots effort - the TSO seems to be charting a path forward that is uniquely Canadian, and an increasingly prominent node in the circuit of concerts by some of the world’s most celebrated talents. This program - with Yo-Yo Ma and Jeremy Dutcher in tow - exuded the type of confidence that comes not only from turning 100, but also from striking an optimal balance between the horse-and-buggy that your audience is accustomed to—and the Ford Model T that’ll drive them into the future.
Returning to this topic of here, the TSO managed to deliver the most evocative land acknowledgements I’ve seen at a concert. Part of what has made land acknowledgements a staid and performative curtsy is how it is we hope to honour the traditional territories which we occupy despite the absence of the Indigenous peoples that are being acknowledged. There’s no single fix to this problem, but seeing Dutcher strut on stage at the top of the evening to acknowledge the presence of his people, in his language, in his traditional garb, is a damn good start. Bravo. Simultaneous to Dutcher’s presence on stage was the Mi’kmaw dancer Sarah Prosper, performing within the audience on the main floor. The effect of Dutcher’s song, and Prosper’s dance was a profound sense of presence, of hereness, that underscored the TSO’s Canadian identity which might otherwise be lost in the Eurocentric heritage of the music it programs. This sense of place was transferred seamlessly from the land acknowledgement to the first item on the program, Oskar Worawetz’s Carnival Overture, as a jovial prelude to Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Morawetz earned his Bachelor of Music from the University of Toronto, where he went on to teach composition from 1946 to 1982. His fairly frequent appearances on TSO programs - the last time being November 19th, 2021, for which I wrote the program notes to his colourful Sinfonietta for Winds and Percussion - is another nudge as to why the TSO matters in the cultivation and preservation of Canadian compositional heritage.
The stringencies of this music make sense best against the backdrop of absolute artistic freedom – that freedom is what this program celebrates – and the Symphonic Dances is as vividly fluorescent a backdrop as you’ll see performed by an orchestra. From the finger snapping, to the tutti cries of “Mambo!”, to the furious rhythmic changes in the percussions section, to the various skirmishes in the string sections, the carnival figures in the brass section, the taunting woodwinds that give way to the pell-mell of a swinging jazz number of the “Cool” Fugue in the seventh movement—this is as much fun as the TSO could fit into 22 minutes of music.
Yo-Yo Ma and Jeremy Dutcher | Photo by Jag Gundu : Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Yo-Yo Ma. Everything you’ve heard about the gravitational pull of his aura on stage is true. The second half of the program began again with Dutcher, this time accompanied by Yo-Yo Ma and orchestra to perform Honour Song by Mi'kmaw elder and composer George Paul. The most astounding thing of seeing Yo-Yo Ma on stage is how it is he still manages – despite the ubiquity of his fame – to disappear into the collaboration with Dutcher. Their relationship began at a concert at Montreal’s Maison symphonique in 2018 when Dutcher was invited as a guest artist to close out Yo-Yo Ma’s performance of the complete Bach solo cello suites. Their compatibility on stage is a seamless revelry in that aforementioned backdrop of absolute artistic freedom. Singing again in the Mi’Kmaq language, Dutcher’s performance carried a simplicity and earnest fragility that was in complete dialogue with Yo-Yo Ma’s cello, a conversation which concluded with an emphatic “TAHO!” from all on stage.