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A great evening for Wagnerites

Roy Thomson Hall
01/31/2019 -  & February 2, 2019
Alban Berg: Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6
Richard Wagner: Walkürenritt and Act I from Die Walküre

Lise Davidsen (Sieglinde), Simon O’Neill (Siegmund), Brindley Sherratt (Hunding)
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor)

L. Davidsen, Sir A. Davis, S. O’Neill (© Jag Gundu)

The two Wagner pieces on the program went exceedingly well. The concert opened with the “Ride of the Valkyries” which must rank as a warhorse (no pun intended), but it was terrific to both hear and watch the augmented orchestra present it with such richness and brio. The rumbling eruption at the end was an electrifying moment.

Sir Andrew gave an amusing little address re the Berg Three Pieces, although he didn’t say much that wasn’t already in the program notes. I can certainly hear in the piece that it is a leap beyond Wagner and contains references to Mahler, and I can understand that Berg didn’t want to compose Mahlerian-style development from the myriad themes that pop up in the work. Here again the orchestra was enlarged, but sheer sonic quantity didn’t really enhance quality. The program notes states that “it defies straightforward analysis in a program note”, a kind of “I give up” statement. Perhaps such a clotted, allusive piece is too recherché for a large audience (although it requires large forces in performance). In many ways it struck me as the musical equivalent of a closet drama, a play designed to read and discussed rather than performed. It received perfunctory applause.

The performance of Act I of Die Walküre was a total success, with outstanding performances from all three soloists (all making their local debuts). The dramatic design of the act can seem puzzlingly tentative, which is the whole point as Siegmund and Sieglinde grope their way toward mutual recognition. Simon O’Neill impressed from the first spare lines to his great aria “Winterstürme” and the climactic duet. The same can be said of Lise Davidsen who, when the score finally calls for her to open up, reveals a voice with great expressiveness and warmth. Brindley Sherratt is a bass who ranks with the best, displaying an implacable, menacing tone that is chillingly gripping. I was sorry his part was so short.

I see this is first mention of Lise Davidsen on ConcertoNet but I predict, if her career stays on track, that she will be mentioned a lot, everywhere, in coming years. (And, by the way, she must surely rank as the world’s tallest soprano. Stage presence as well as vocal presence!)

A note about audience size: I was disconcerted to see that the entire top tier of the hall with about one-third of the 2660 seats, was in darkness. Obviously TSO management has calculated that the program would only attract at best a two-thirds house, so acted accordingly. This would have decreased costs a bit (fewer front-of-house staff, reduced electricity bill) and I have to concede that actions like this have resulted in a brighter fiscal picture for the TSO, which generated a surplus of 2.3 million dollars last year. And it surely is preferable to have decently full orchestra and mezzanine levels. Of course this raises the question of just what is the proper size for a concert hall and I detect a trend toward smaller venues, such as Montréal’s Maison Symphonique which seats 1900 plus 200 in the choir loft. Roy Thomson Hall (opened in 1982, refurbished in 2002) isn’t old enough to be replaced.

Michael Johnson



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