This speaks to the singular place that Beethoven occupies in the classical repertoire: a musical hero, isolated by his own greatness, towering over all rivals. “To us musicians,” declared Franz Liszt, “the work of Beethoven parallels the pillars of smoke and fire which led the Israelites through the desert.”
These thoughts bring me to last Friday’s concert (March 30) by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. The soloist was the Canadian violinist Karen Gomyo, who played Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. And on the podium, for his TSO debut, was the American maestro Robert Trevino.
Overall, Gomyo was an intense presence at the front of the stage: her playing was precise and polished, and her tone shone brightly over the orchestra. However, her interpretation was high-minded and inward-looking to a fault. The stately tempo she chose at the outset of the concerto seemed to weigh down the first movement, making her performance earth-bound. Even the cadenza was more a technical tour-de-force than a compelling musical drama. The most exciting music-making came in the tutti sections, without the violin – when the concerto seems to be trying to become a symphony – thanks to the energy Trevino was able to inject into these passages. (At other times, he held the TSO in check.)
Had the first movement been more lively, Gomyo’s very restrained second movement would perhaps have been a striking contrast. But such was not the case, and in Gomyo’s hands, the movement seemed distended, lacking in forward impetus. Happily, in the third movement, she turned the energy-level up a notch, offering a lively performance, putting some sizzle on the steak. But this was a little too little, a little too late.
The other big piece on the program was Stravinsky’s Petrouchka (the 1947 version). In place of an intermission, we were treated to a lengthy recounting of the ballet’s story by Trevino, from the stage. Personally, I would have preferred an intermission – and I began to suspect that Trevino was trying very hard to demonstrate his “audience engagement” skills. The TSO is currently looking for a new conductor, and perhaps Trevino was making a play for the short-list.
Yet when the band finally started to play, Trevino and the TSO hit it off pretty well: the guest conductor cut the TSO plenty of slack, and the musicians with a vivid and vibrant performance, making the most of the multi-layered textures in this score. Kudos to trumpeter Andrew McCandless and flutist Nora Schulman, among others.
And yes, there was another “Sesquie” on the program: a festive splash of modernism with an abrupt ending. It was by the Canadian composer Cheryl Cooney, and its title – Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to (a) new era? – was longer than the piece itself. If you’d like to know more about what I think of Sesquies, click here.
© Colin Eatock 2017