Toronto Symphony displays rich virtuosity at the Kravis Center

By David Fleshler

Peter Oundjian conducted the Toronto Symphony Orchestra Sunday night at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. Photo: Sian Edwards

Peter Oundjian conducted the Toronto Symphony Orchestra Sunday night at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. Photo: Sian Edwards

Sunday evening’s concert at the Kravis Center offered a celebration of Canada’s contributions to classical music.

On the stage of the West Palm Beach hall was the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, in fine form as it began a Florida tour that will take it to Miami Thursday night. The soloist was the young Calgary native Jan Lisiecki, performing the concerto he will bring to New York later this month for his Carnegie Hall debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra. And the program included a piece by the Canadian composer John Estacio, as well as works by Beethoven and Rimsky-Korsakov. The orchestra will play the same program at the Arsht Center in Miami.

An orchestra puts itself on display in a work like Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, ¬†with its stirring melodies, brilliant orchestration and instrumental solos. Under music director Peter Oundjian—also Canadian—this was a rich, satisfying performance of the Russian composer’s setting of the Arabian Nights, with surging sensuality, grand trumpet-topped climaxes and an overarching sense of musical storytelling that gave shape to a work that can come off as a series of brilliant episodes united by a recurring violin solo.

The star soloist was concertmaster Jonathan Crow, whose violin portrays Scheherazade, the woman who staves off the sultan’s plans to execute her by entertaining him with stories. Crow gave a smooth and evocative account of the seductive Scheherazade theme, showing no difficulty as the music grew more and more complex, with resonant and unblemished playing of chords and a quietly glowing performance of the high-pitched tones called harmonics that mark the end of the work.

Other solo instruments provided playing full of personality and virtuosity, effortlessly tossing off quick arpeggios and other figures, aided by Oundjian’s tendency to barely conduct certain passages, allowing the players the freedom the work seems to require.

LisieckiJan_bio_1

Jan Lisiecki

At the age of 20, the pianist Jan Lisiecki already has developed a significant career, with appearances with major orchestras and a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon. He was named Gramophone magazine’s 2013 Young Artist of the Year.

Yet his performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 was a disappointment, underpowered and excessively deferential to the orchestra. Maybe he wanted to keep the performance within classical proportions. And certainly the Fourth Piano Concerto has nothing like the overt drama of the Fifth or Third.

But there was a lack of weight to his touch at the keyboard that allowed the tones of the piano to be almost engulfed by the orchestra. Quick passages sometimes came off as uneven, lacking the smoothness and elegance called for by the music. Only in the cadenzas of the first and third movements, when the piano could play alone, did he seem to play with the style and confidence that has won him so much attention early in his career. The orchestra supplied more excitement than the soloist, playing in a taut, full-bodied, muscular manner that fit middle-period Beethoven perfectly.

The orchestra opened with Estacio’s Wondrous Light, a musical depiction of the aurora borealis, the solar light phenomenon visible at northern latitudes. This made for an energetic curtain-raiser, creating a sense of expectation and excitement with galloping strings and upward thrusting passages. Although there were some stereotypically space-music harmonies in the middle that would be familiar to anyone who attended the right movies, the music builds to a majestic brass chorale, spiced by the zipping tones of the strings injecting a sizzle of energy.

As an encore, the orchestra performed the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin, in a performance marked by rhythmic vigor and ballroom elegance.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra performs 8 p.m. Monday at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach. The program includes Tchaikovsky’s Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 and Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with soloist Jan Lisiecki. kravis.org, 800-572-8471. The orchestra performs 8 p.m. Thursday at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, repeating the same program played at the Kravis Center Sunday night. arshtcenter.org, 305-949-6722.

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Mon Jan 4, 2016
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