A major workout
Roy Thomson Hall
11/23/2017 - & November 25, 2017
Tobin Stokes: Just Keep Paddling
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A minor
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles (conductor)
D. Runnicles (© Jag Gundu)
The Mahlerites and the Mahler-curious turned out in force for Donald Runnicles’s guest appearance taking charge of a work that is performed infrequently hereabout, Mahler’s Symphony No. 6.
For this the orchestra was enlarged to 108 players with extra percussion and, for example, nine horns instead of the usual five. The players were also arranged in what I have seen called a “Mahler style” layout, with the second violins and violas to the right of the conductor and the cellos and basses to his left behind the first violins. The reasoning behind this is to maximize clarity between the two large groups of violins, especially in a piece so thickly orchestrated. The only way to test this out is to organize a performance with the orchestra in its usual layout and then one in the “Mahler style”, but such is unlikely to happen. It is truly a big busy work but as far as I could discern the various strands and layers came across clearly.
Another departure from usual practice occurred right at the start. The conductor did not stand in silence for a moment but launched abruptly into the piece the second he bounded on to the podium. The orchestra was ready for this and if audience members were a bit startled, it was a good way to be startled.
If the audience had greeted romping grandeur of the first movement’s finale with a round of applause I would have forgiven them - even welcomed it. It was truly glorious.
This symphony has attached to it a rather tedious debate over the order of the second and third movements. The notes indicated that we would be hearing the Andante moderato before the Scherzo but - surprise! - they were reversed. (Either way works for me.) The Scherzo has the Mahlerian spiky outbursts, while the Andante features strains that could accompany a Cinemascope costume epic. The lengthy final movement swoops and swerves in many directions, raising hopes of yet another glorious finale only to dash such hopes. The main themes and the tergiversations were all given their full due. The work has been named (not by Mahler) but lots of it is not.
I have one small criticism: the off-stage cowbells were too far off-stage.
I intended to time the performance but in the heat of the moment forgot. It might have been somewhat on the fast side. For those interested, Runnicles used a score (an impressive tome).
The evening opened with another brief “sesquie”, Just Keep Paddling by Tobin Stokes, a work that conjures up rushing waters and then sweeps us through them.
The TSO is looking for a new music director, thus every guest conductor is seen as a possibility. Two frequent and much-admired guest conductors, Gianandrea Noseda and Thomas Dausgaard, have recently accepted posts with Washington and Seattle respectively. Donald Runnicles seems immersed in quite a big musical career but if he is angling for the directorship of a North American orchestra, specifically this one, this performance was an impressive demo.