The headline of John Terauds’ rave review of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s recent “Vivaldi’s Four Seasons” concert in the Toronto Star on Tuesday said it all: “Downsized TSO upsizes the pleasure.” Led by violinist and TSO concertmaster Jonathan Crow, the strings were augmented by a harpsichord, flute, oboe, bassoon and, in earlier parts of the program, a horn and a piano. Terauds gave the performance four stars, reflecting the repeated standing ovations from the nearly full house at Roy Thomson Hall.
I was so enthused by the review that I immediately phoned the RTH box office and secured a single ticket for Thursday night’s performance, the last of four. I could not have imagined a more splendid evening.
The theme was bringing nature into the theatre, particularly inviting on a dark and rainy November night. First up was the chamber orchestra version of Carmen Braden’s “Songs of the Invisible Summer Stars.” Thirty-four-year-old Braden was born in Whitehorse, Yukon and is now based in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Her “Songs” was originally composed as a septet for flute, oboe, horn, two violins, viola, and cello and premiered with the TSO Chamber Soloists in the 2017 Toronto Summer Music Festival. The version last night was expanded to evoke even more graphically the colours, textures, and sounds of her sub-arctic northern home. Her five-movement imaginative exploration of what the stars do when they disappear from the northern skies in the summer was “magical,” to quote my neighbour, and “one of the finest pieces of new music I have heard in a long time,” to quote Terauds. The RTH audience agreed. Imagine how thrilled this young Canadian composer must have been to have her distinctively northern suite played by the professional musicians of the TSO over four nights in Toronto, the last night in the presence of the Foundation donors who had commissioned her work.
American composer Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” ballet suite followed with a 13-member ensemble of double string quartet, double bass, piano, flute, clarinet, and bassoon. Composed for new Martha Graham ballets in 1944 and referred to as “Ballet for Martha,” Copland wrote “that it had to do with the American pioneer spirit, with youth and spring, optimism and hope.” When the score picked up the tune of “’Tis the gift to be simple, ’Tis the gift to be free, ’Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,” their rendition of the familiar Shaker hymn only highlighted the energy, simplicity, and purity of the entire performance. An utter delight.
The entire second half was a brilliant performance of Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 8” published in 1725. As familiar as parts of this music are to everyone, this performance was outstanding. I have heard the music before played on historic Baroque instruments. It was the first time I had heard it played on modern instruments. It was a different sound and it sparkled. Another addition was the reading of four Petrarchan sonnets, one at the beginning of each season, introducing the scenes which the music went on to so aptly describe. The delicacy and virtuosity of Crowe’s performance, and that of the rest of the group, were mesmerizing. The emotional impact was such that, on its conclusion, there was total silence in the house before the crowd jumped up in sustained applause.
Jonathan Crow, a native of Prince George British Columbia, got his Bachelor of Music in Honours Performance at McGill in 1998, joined the Montreal Symphony and became “the youngest concertmaster of any major North American orchestra” in 2002-2006. He joined the TSO as concertmaster in 2011 and teaches as an associate professor of violin at the University of Toronto. In 2016, he became Artistic Director of Toronto Summer Music for three seasons. He is a founding member of the New Orford Strong Quartet which promotes the Canadian string repertoire throughout North America. I was so proud to hear so talented and passionate a musician and to learn that he came from British Columbia. Like many, I left the Hall with a smile on my face feeling warm and cozy. No wonder.