This was the kind of program the Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented at Roy Thomson Hall last week, playing a pair of water-themed orchestral works: Debussy’s La Mer and Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony.
On Saturday night, the TSO sounded good, playing with a heightened state of energy and sensitivity. Indeed, the evening was like one of those “date nights” that married couples sometimes arrange with each other to keep the flame burning brightly – and both Oundian and the TSO seemed keen on making the most of their time together.
The first movement of La Mer, “De l’aube à midi sur la mer,” began with delicate sensitivity. Gradually, phrasing became more full-bodied, as Oundjian skilfully led his orchestra towards a glorious culmination. There was a subtle energy underlying the second movement, “Jeux des vagues,” with splashes of vivid brassy colour. And the third movement was an agitated flurry, with Oundjian surfing the waves even as he shaped them. Here, there was a touch of Rite of Spring rawness in this movement, delivering value-added excitement.
For the Sea Symphony, the TSO was augmented by the formidable phalanx that is the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. And the program was not entirely without soloists: baritone Russell Braun and soprano Erin Wall took their seats at the edge of the stage.
Oundjian is fond of Vaughan Williams. (The conductor once proudly told me that he and Vaughan Williams went to the same English private school, Charterhouse.) Over the course of his tenure with the TSO, Oundian has often programmed Vaughan Williams’ music, and he has recorded the English composer’s Fourth and Fifth symphonies on the TSO Live label.
Unfortunately, I’ve never been quite convinced that Vaughan Williams is worthy of a prominent place in the TSO’s progamming. To me, his works lack the sense of “timelessness” that makes great music sound perennially fresh and new. On the contrary, I hear Vaughan Williams’ music as very much fixed in its historical time and place. Stylistically, it’s three parts late-British-Empire bluster, two parts Pre-Raphaelite sensitivity, and one part Eurpean modernism.
That’s pretty much how I would describe Sea Symphony. Despite Walt Whitman’s universal and quasi-religious text, the piece never quite shakes off an English-sounding patriotic tone. And why did Vaughan Williams feel the need to insert so many march-like passages into a piece about the sea?
In Oundjian’s hands, the symphony was lush, sumptuous and sometimes downright bombastic. If you’re going to perform this music, I suppose that’s the way to do it – and the conductor’s obvious enthusiasm proved infectious, as he drew great waves of sound from the choir and orchestra. As well, Oundjian controlled his large forces well, with impressive results at times – for instance, in the lovely ending of the Second movement, or in the fluid sense of urgency he brought to the Third.
Braun and Wall both made excellent contributions to the performance. Both displayed a security and sturdiness that matched, and could even cut through, the daunting musical forces behind them. The TSO couldn’t have chosen better.
Here’s a video of Oundjian talking about his Decades Project and the TSO’s collaboration with the Art Gallery of Ontario. We’ll see what the ensuing decades of the 20th century hold in store.
© Colin Eatock 2015