Conductor Karl-Heinz Steffens with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Photo credit: Nick Wons

Conductor Karl-Heinz Steffens with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Photo credit: Nick Wons

i began following jan lisiecki (pronounced yaan lu-ches-ski) on instagram about a year ago after discovering his recording of chopin’s Andante Spianato for Deutsche Grammophon, and couldn’t help the surreal feeling of watching him perform at Roy Thomson Hall last night, as if i’d stepped into the gram-o-sphere to meet my favourite instagram model. that model of course is the 23 year old albertan and graduate of The Glenn Gould School of the Royal Conservatory of Music---and one of the most celebrated pianists on the global stage. part of his charm as a performer emanates from the special care he seems to take to not appearing all too charming: aside from the bows and curtsies and all the pomp and ceremony attending to a night with the TSO, he, perhaps like any other millennial, wants to emphasize just how much he enjoys doing what he does, and the easiness with which he steps into his role onstage. but he really does enjoy this stuff, his performance is a singular extension of his singular obsession, he’s possessed by the instrument and, from what i saw and heard last night, the possession is mutual. with so  seemingly effortless a talent as lisiecki’s, comparisons to the aforementioned glenn gould are unavoidable. but unlike gould, lisiecki feels very comfortable in front of an audience. he loves it. the less than ten words he spoke all night (indeed the only ones spoken onstage last night) were a wink of simplicity and brevity by a pianist who lets his hands and pedals do the talking.

In October 1853, with a pack on his back and walking staff in hand, Brahms knocked on the Schumanns’ door. After he played a few pieces for them, Robert patted him on the shoulder and said vaguely, “We understand each other.” That night Schumann wrote in his journal, “Visit from Brahms (a genius).”  From that point the couple more or less adopted Johannes, adding him to their noisy houseful of children. A few months later, Schumann wrote a journal article that essentially declared this twenty-year-old student the heir of Beethoven and the coming savior of German music---by implication, saving it from what Schumann saw as the depredations of Liszt and Wagner, who had turned away from classical forms towards music based on ideas and stories. “” jan swafford, Language of the Spirit

the three works produced don’t share much in common except for the friendships of their composers. the program--a compilation of three composers and genres--seems so have been procured by the random spasms of some musical 8-ball, and it worked. the evening moved effortlessly through an extended overture, thereon to the much anticipated concerto and the second half belongs entirely to brahm’s fourth symphony.

this is the last month of what has been an excellent season for the TSO, and it has been an incalculable blessing for me to have made it out to a good chunk of this year’s concerts. this season has revealed to me the paramount importance of having a resident symphony in a city of any size. i had the joy of sitting next to two long-time subscribers to the symphony last night, antonia and andrew, who very casually informed me that they’ve been subscribers for over fifty years. antiona, seemingly the spokesperson of the duo, was struggling to remember when Roy Thomson Hall was built and had to jog her memory by recalling that ‘it must have been more than fifteen years since we moved to Roy Thomson because Justin Trudeau’s father was prime minister the year the building opened”...our little chat was just after lisiecki’s performance, antonia stood up to clap, adding how just much she enjoyed her performance. it’s a sobering to imagine how many times they’ve heard that mendelssohn concerto over the last fifty years, perhaps they’ve seen gould perform that same piece. that a piece of music can become an aperture through which a lifetime in a city can be glimpsed, leaves me truly short of words...


Jan Lisiecki; photo: @lisieckijan

Jan Lisiecki; photo: @lisieckijan

Toronto Symphony Orchestra presents a mixed program under Artist Director, Sir Andrew Davis, June 5, 2019.

Conducted by Karl-Heinz Steffens. Soloist: Jan Lisiecki

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Manfred, Op. 115

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Piano Concerto No.1 in G Minor, Op.25

  • Molto Allegro con fuoco

  • Andante

  • Presto - Molto allegro e vivace

Johannes Brahms

Symphony No.4 in E Minor, Op.98

  • Allegro non troppo

  • Andante moderato

  • Allegro giocoso

  • Allegro energico e passionato

(Robert Schumann: Overture to Manfred, Op. 115)

"The unconquerable individual to the end, Manfred gives his soul to neither heaven nor hell, only to death. “” Manfred, lord byron

an Overture can either be a delicious apéritif in anticipation of intrigues to come or an insinuating abbreviation of profound insights to be revealed; the one to Così fan tutte, for example, is in the former category, and  Don Giovanni’s in the latter---so too is the Overture to schumann’s Manfred. the title character of the opera (based on a dramatic poem by lord byron in 1816) is a recluse in the same style as the main character in joris-karl huysman’s À rebours (Against Nature), except he persists valiantly for nature. described as a work of ‘defiant humanism’, it’s the story of a man’s resistance to the temptation of supernatural influences despite his precipitous proximities to it.

The three movements conform to an 18th century fast-slow-fast scheme, but now the three are linked by transitions, and there are cyclical elements: themes in the second and third movements are variants of themes in the first, and a lyrical melody from the first movement is wistfully recalled near the end of an otherwise effervescent rondo finale. “” TSO’s program notes by kevin bazzana

the depths of Manfred’s longings are evidenced in the one request he makes of the seven spirits he summoned: to forget of his love-lost. the Overture reflects the complexities of his psyche: violins are lush and intimate, as if serenading someone very familiar (indeed Astarte, his dead lover); the timpani and french horns tuft the swell of strings as the cello section’s deep grunts fill in the background with frequent reminders of the more universal elements in Manfred’s turmoil. the movement progresses steadily towards some fatal edge---or perhaps just towards curtain-rise. it’s a longer Overture than usual, but conductor karl-heinz steffens maintains a sense of urgency throughout with demonstrative gestures and a connection with the orchestra that is more akin to a permanent musical director than a visiting conductor (on loan from Prague State Opera).

Manfred’s melancholy temperament deeply resonated with Schumann. It is the dominant emotional character of the Overture, which follows the standard structure of a slow introduction, followed by a fast and brilliant sonata form. “” TSO’s program notes by Hannah Chan-Hartley

(Felix Mendelssohn: Piano Concerto No.1 in G Minor, Op.25)

Nowhere in this dashing, imaginative, profoundly Romantic work, either in substance or in structure, does Mendelssohn put a foot wrong—this from a composer who claimed to find writing concertos difficult, because of the need to reconcile musical integrity with the showmanship demanded by the genre.  “” TSO’s program notes by kevin bazzana

musical integrity and showmanship---that descriptive combination is very befitting of the character of lisiecki’s performance last night, except that showiness wasn’t really his style, he genuinely believes in the music and in enjoying the music alongside the audience. the orchestra’s sound in this Concerto is considerably different from the first item on the program; with much of the brass section gone, space is made for the piano--both physically and musically. the first movement, Molto Allegro con fuoco, is a back and forth volley of the main theme between the solo instrument and orchestra, a spring coiled on piano and released into the orchestra. the movement is gently and seamlessly guided by steffens into the second movement, Andante moderato, without a break. lisiecki’s prowess and a very active cello section (led by joseph johnson) take the forefront of the slow movement. the third and final movement is lisiecki’s best, almost leaping out of his seat with the sheer kinetic energy of his performance. his bob of hair vibrating with every pound on the keys. several ovations later, the pianist sits down to for an encore, announcing he’ll be playing one of mendelssohn’s Song without Words, a tender and delicate contemplative caressed with feeling  by a pianist who knows his chopin well.  

Jan Lisiecki with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Photo credit: Nick Wons

Jan Lisiecki with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Photo credit: Nick Wons

(Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98)

in order to extract the full spectrum of romantic drama available in a brahms symphony, the third and final iteration of the orchestra is its largest. out of the brevity of the Overture format and showmanship of a Concerto, conductor steffens steps into the foreground to direct the orchestra through the dense thicket of four breathless movements of elaborate gestures coupled with unambiguous phrasings. much of the first movement is characterized by various expressions of a call-and-response---the trumpet calls and the orchestra responds---the music is fast and heavy and the orchestra glides beneath it like a proud and glistening fleet. the second movement, Andante moderato (a bit faster than Andante), begins with a throatful phrase on french horns (which comes back again in the final movement), is passed on to flutes and echoed by orchestra in a more sombre volume and colour.

The third movement is a bright, swift, noisy march with an often militaristic sound (note the piccolo, contrabassoon, and triangle) and a Dionysian energy that is rare in Brahms, though the secondary themes are quiet, gracious, dancelike—and (surely intentionally) a little banal. “” TSO’s program notes by kevin bazzana

Romanticism, as a movement, is among many things a belief that music should be beautiful--or at the least emotional. the fourth movement of this symphony is both of those things. the addition of a triangle at stage-left adds a jingly jolt of electricity and brings the energy of the piece to that of dance music. it is a bold and shimmering stretch of music that manages as much room for searing strings as for flute solos. the closing notes are less of a crashing finale than the gentle descent after protracted flight.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s production of this mixed program titled Brahms Symphony 4’ runs until Saturday June 8th