Yet as I left Wednesday night’s Toronto Symphony Orchestra concert at Roy Thomson Hall, I couldn’t help thinking that Gardner had once again shown discretion to be the better part of valour.
However, Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 was a different matter. This is one of the more manageable Mahler symphonies – but it still places daunting demands on a conductor to find an interpretation and to communicate it to the musicians.
Gardner certainly didn’t come to the podium lacking ideas – favouring a bold approach, full of abrupt and dramatic contrasts. Unfortunately, in his efforts to get the TSO to do things his way, he sometimes resorted to brute strength where persuasion might have been more effective. Indeed, Gardner’s baton-waving was so blunt that he occasionally reminded me of one of those airport workers who direct taxiing jets to their runways with illuminated wands.
I suppose there would be nothing wrong with this way of conducting if it led to a glorious performance. But it didn’t – Gardner’s broad, flailing gestures usually sounded as awkwardly wilful as they looked. It was the outer movements of the symphony that suffered most from this approach, weighted down with forced effect. Happily, the inner movements were steadier and more convincing.
Sandwiched in between the Wagner and the Mahler was a more slender work: the Trumpet Concerto of Johann Hummel. It was played by trumpet virtuoso Alison Balsom, glittering from head to toe in a flashy sequined dress.
However, there was nothing especially flashy about her playing. On the contrary, there was a direct, no-nonsense approach to her performance. From the outset, her attacks were crisp, her legato was smooth, and she took full advantage of the wide dynamic range of her instrument. In the second movement, her tone had intimate, veiled quality – and her phrases were so long that she seemed not to breathe at all. In the final movement, she dispatched virtuoso passages with brilliant agility, making it all look and sound easy.
The Hummel was a welcome addition to the program. It’s nice to hear a soloist with the TSO, from time to time, who isn’t a pianist or a string player.
© Colin Eatock 2013