Turning 33 this year, Piemontesi still has a youthful glow about him. He has a number of awards and prizes under his belt, and has already recorded about half a dozen CDs. But, scanning his bio, what really caught my eye was the revelation that the pianist is a protégé of Alfred Brendel – a name I will always hold synonymous with a high-minded, intellectual pianism.
But this was Beethoven (not Mozart), and Piemontesi’s elegant approach soon started to sound a little inadequate to the dramatic demands of the concerto. Indeed, there was a frustrating quality to the Swiss pianist`s penchant for carefully shaping long, purposeful crescendos, only to allow the built-up energy to dissipate too quickly. The result was refined but precious playing that offered mere glimpses of Beethovenian power.
However, if I went for the pianist, I stayed for the conductor – and I’m glad I did.
Maestro Thomas Søndergård was also making his TSO debut with these concerts. In the Beethoven, he fell in with the soloist’s cautious approach, keeping his orchestra on a short leash, and maintaining sensible balances.
But when the score of Sibelius’s Symphony No. 1 was put up on his music stand, his approach was entirely different. Under the Danish conductor’s baton, the TSO sprang to life with a reading that was intense and even passionate. Yet for all the energy generated, there was nothing pell-mell about this performance. Structure was insightfully illuminated, and foreground and background textures were skilfully differentiated. The strings sounded lush and fulsome, the winds were bright and lively – and crescendos culminated in sustained passages of sonorous energy.
Søndergård’s animated style could be seen as well as heard. He is a busy man on the podium, direct and secure in his gestures (he used to be a timpanist) and thorough in his cues to his players. Clearly, the TSO responded to his baton technique with confidence and enthusiasm. A good time was had by all, and the symphony (which is not usually one of my favourites, by the way) sounded glorious.
The departure of TSO music director Peter Oundjian won’t happen for a couple of years. Still, the announcement that he’s leaving has been made – and for that reason, every guest conductor who graces the stage of Roy Thomson Hall will be fair game for speculation as a possible successor to Oundjian.
Søndergård is currently occupied with positions at two British orchestras: the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. So it’s not at all clear he would have time for the TSO, even if the orchestra wanted him. But if he could somehow be enticed to cross the Atlantic, his appointment would be a fine coup. At the least, I hope he will return for more guest appearances.
There was a third piece on the bill, which opened the program: Perpetual Summer by the Canadian (and American and Hungarian) composer Kati Agócs. Before the performance began, Agócs said that the piece was a comment on the threat of global warming. If so, she made impending environmental disaster sound rather appealing: the 12-minute essay was bright and sunny, full of glittery swirls of sound. Also, there were some clever quotations from Vivaldi’s “Summer” from The Four Seasons thrown in – and if I’m not mistaken, also snippets of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.
© Colin Eatock 2016