On Thursday night I once had the pleasure of hearing Osborne – this time with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall, in a mixed program designed to showcase her strengths. On the podium for the occasion was guest conductor Michael Sanderling, in his debut with the TSO. (The program was the third in the TSO’s “First Decades” series.)
Her first selection was “Song to the Moon” from Dvořák’s Rusalka, sung with touching sensitivity – and perhaps also a touch of nervous frailty that seemed to work in her favour. Osborne doesn’t have an especially big voice, but she showed that through careful marshaling of her vocal forces she could soar above a big orchestra. Her “money notes” paid handsome dividends, and she also displayed an admirable lower register.
Similarly, “Dupuis le jour” from Charpentier’s Louise was a lovely thing, delicately phrased. As well, there was an unannounced addition to the program. In “Vilja” from Lehár’s Merry Widow, Osborne’s voice floated like a feather, with a hint of playfulness in her delivery. The set of arias was a triumph for Osborne, and I could have listened to her all evening.
I can’t, however, bring myself to say quite the same thing about Sanderling, and his work with the TSO. In keeping with the operatic theme of the concert’s first half, he began the program with Strauss’s “Dance of the Seven Veils.” Sanderling (who is, by the way, Kurt Sanderling’s son) offered a halting interpretation of this excerpt, and in busy tutti sections he failed to sort out the foreground and background. There was, however, some fine playing from oboist Sarah Jeffrey.
The big piece on the program was Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. At first, Sanderling seemed to lack rapport with the orchestra, and indeed, with the piece itself. He began the first movement with a plodding tempo, yet soon started to impose drastic shifts on his players. The result was arbitrary and laboured: at times the performance felt like a tug-of-war between Sanderling and the TSO, in which both sides were ultimately the losers. The second movement wasn’t much of an improvement, lacking a clear sense of direction.
But with the third movement, a remarkable transformation took place. After a warm, spacious introduction from the strings, Sanderling brought in the wind instruments with skill and sensitivity. This was an organic interpretation, in which an expansive grande ligne was carefully traced from the first note to the last.
With the conductor and orchestra now working together, Osborne’s return to the stage for the fourth movement was the highlight of the evening. Her approach to the child-like text was ingenuous and heartfelt, and her performance was clear, polished and secure. Under Sanderling, the orchestra’s intense outbursts were an effective contrast to Osborne’s lyricism.
All’s well that ends well, I suppose. But I am mystified as to why this concert was so uneven. The evening’s best moments proved that the people on stage were capable of doing splendid things, when they were all on the same page.
© Colin Eatock 2015