Concert Review: Toronto Symphony Orchestra – Elgar Cello Concerto


Elgar Cello Concerto
Wed. Sep. 18, 2013 at 8:00pm
Roy Thomson Hall
Peter Oundjian, conductor
Alisa Weilerstein, cello


Britten: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell
Elgar: Cello Concerto
Dvořák: Symphony No. 7


It is that time of the year again, when my beloved TSO starts their season. The 2013-2014 season opened in spectacular fashion with a showy performance of the Britten Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell (otherwise known as The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, without the narration) followed by an electric rendition of Elgar’s Cello Concerto.

The concert began with the customary concert- and season-opening, warm performance of the Canadian national anthem O Canada. TSO Musical Director and tonight’s conductor Peter Oundjian then briefly addressed the audience, commending its vocal performance of the anthem, as well as sharing his connection with first Britten, whom he has auditioned and performed for in choir as a schoolboy, then the soloist Weilerstein, whom he has apparently known since she was a baby.

Then right into the Britten they went. I had never been very impressed with the Young Person’s Guide until I saw it live tonight. This piece is truly a benchmark test for your orchestra, as well as a quick and effective study of the different timbres produced by many different combinations of orchestral instruments. On the benchmark, the TSO certainly did not disappoint; the percussions sounded great, and the double-basses delivered on what will probably be the longest and most elaborate “section solo” of the season. If you haven’t heard of the Young Person’s Guide, here is a video of a performance; this is definitely a piece of music that is greatly enhanced by the visual performance, and the video does it justice.

The solo performance for the night was Elgar’s Cello Concerto, performed by Alisa Weilerstein. The Elgar Cello Concert was Elgar’s final major composition. Although it was completed in 1919, its reputation was marred by an ill-prepared premiere, and the piece did not become the staple that it is today until it was recorded by Jacqueline Du Pré in 1965. The piece itself, while technically challenging, is very contemplative and rather sombre in my opinion. Alisa Weilerstein demonstrated her virtuosity with her focused sound that projected better than most other soloists at the Roy Thomson Hall, as well as a blazing tempo in the concerto’s second movement, which was very impressive, albeit perhaps somewhat unusual.

The programme ended with Dvořák’s 7th Symphony, one of his most performed along with his 8th and 9th. The performance, while very meritorious, was a bit lacklustre compared to the great performances of the first half. I commented to my colleague that I wondered whether the orchestra grew a bit estranged from Peter Oundjian after a few months’ break in the summer, because some of the syncopated parts and tempo changes weren’t spot on like I remember them usually being. The sound of the wind section, which incidentally had a roster change during intermission, was notably impeccable, especially the French horns.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable concert. The attendance was somewhat disappointing, and surprising, considering the quality of the orchestra as well as the popularity of the soloist and repertoire performed. Another small disappointment to me is that the TSO has a concert scheduled just over a week from now with the identical programme besides the violin soloist Ray Chen’s performance of the Mendelssohn. I would have liked to see that concert, but now it would be a bit hard to justify. Incidentally, announcements were made prior to the concert that the CBC was recording the concert, with a request that the audience maintain their silence during performance. The request was not granted.

– JC


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