Toronto Symphony brings spontaneous fervor to Broward Center

By David Fleshler

Peter Oundjian led the Toronto Symphony Orchestra Tuesday night at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale. Photo: Hasnain Dattu

The audience may have been surprisingly small Tuesday night at the Broward Center. But the Toronto Symphony Orchestra delivered a fine performance as it passed through Fort Lauderdale, with the musicians no doubt grateful not to be home, where the local forecast called for snow flurries and temperatures hovering around 16 degrees Fahrenheit.

Although the 88-year-old orchestra doesn’t have as high a profile as its counterpart in Montreal, the Toronto Symphony is a first-class ensemble that gave immaculately prepared, spontaneously played performances of works by Barber, Tchaikovsky and Canadian composer Gary Kulesha under music director Peter Oundjian.

A Toronto native, Oundjian had been first violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet until he injured his left hand. Reinventing himself as a conductor, he has led the Toronto Symphony since 2004, taking over after a period of financial difficulty, and leading the orchestra to greater stability, the creation of its own recording label and more frequent tours. This is the ensemble’s first visit to Florida since 1999.

Despite the orchestra’s good reputation and South Florida’s huge community of Canadian snowbirds, the Broward Center’s main hall appeared to be only about one-third full. Oundjian remarked on the low turnout, telling the crowd after the first piece on the program, “You don’t look very numerous, but you sound fantastic when you applaud.”

The orchestra opened with Torque, a short work by Canadian composer Gary Kulesha. Commissioned by the orchestra, Torque is a hard-driving five minutes of frantic repeated figures in the strings, brass blasts and sheer momentum that sounded like the film score for a car chase, making a showy and effective curtain-raiser.

James Ehnes: Photo by Benjamin Ealovega

Joining the orchestra as soloist in Barber’s Violin Concerto was James Ehnes, himself a transplant from Canada, having grown up in Manitoba and living now with his wife and children in Bradenton, just north of Sarasota. The young violinist won a Grammy for his recording of this work and the concertos of Walton and Korngold, and his feel for Barber’s romantic melodies and dramatic ardor was clear.

In the wrong hands the opening theme of the concerto can sound overly sweet (the pianist Jeremy Denk compared the melody on his blog to the sticky, sugar-crusted pastries at Starbucks). But Ehnes’ broad, noble tone brought out the warmth of the opening theme without sounding cloying and sentimental. He also brought out the movement’s drama, for example, in his masterful handling of the crescendo and climax that leads to the orchestra’s restatement of the main theme.

The last movement is a virtuoso whirl of notes that makes ferocious demands on the violinist’s technique. Ehnes showed no sign of struggle with this difficult movement, but neither did he toss it off with the mechanical disdain of a violinist who has mastered a work and whose mind was elsewhere. The rapid notes took on an astonishing range of colors, from dark, quiet and brooding, to open and bright, as Ehnes played faster and faster, achieving a frantic intensity up to the work’s abrupt, brassy conclusion.

The second half consisted of Tchaikovsky’s popular Fifth Symphony. There were moments where brass overpowered all, robbing some passages of the intensity generated by rapid playing in the strings. But in general Oundjian drew a refined, sensitive performance from the orchestra. Strings played in a natural, unforced style, with phrases that breathed with life. Notable was the soaring, golden-toned horn solo in the Andante.

The last movement unfolded as a spontaneous drama, with Oundjian drawing stirring, responsive playing from the orchestra. The audience made up for its limited numbers with enthusiasm, calling Oundjian back over and over for bows. As an encore, he led the orchestra in a spirited performance of the Russian Dance from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra performs 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach.; 561-832-7469.

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Wed Jan 12, 2011
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