Courtesy of Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Jag Gundu

Courtesy of Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Jag Gundu

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented ‘Romantic Brahms’, featuring guest-conductor Donald Runnicle, and the principal oboist Sarah Jeffrey presents a rarely performed oboe concerto. On September 27th 2019 at Roy Thomson Hall.

* Johannes Brahms — Symphony No.3 in F Major, Op. 90
1. Allegro con brio
2. Andante
3. Poco allegretto
4. Allegro

* Richard Strauss — Concerto in D Major for Oboe and Small Orchestra
1. Allegro moderato
2. Andante
3. Vivace

* Richard Strauss — Death and Transfiguration, Op.24

a bit of coincidence: this week i came across an excerpt from Musicking, the seminal book by ethnomusicologist christopher small, wherein he makes an argument for the popular usage of ‘musicking in order to emphasize the experience of music as an activity moreso than an object, complete in a score or recording. a small stretch of that excerpt came to mind during friday night’s performance of the TSO’s ‘Romantic Brahms’, as an affirmation of what i believe to be the most important aspect of music making:

It could be that we have what we call art or the arts only when we cease to be aware of the ritual function of the activity and try to divorce it from its ritual purposes. I say we try to divorce it, because I believe we never can do so. No matter how secular or frivolous, or even trivial it may appear, however primitive, or crude or even incompetent it may seem, the ritual function of art is always present for those who can perceive it. “” christopher small, Musicking

an evening at the symphony is, to put it a bit crudely, a clockwork ritual centered around music making; a usually two-hour programmatic procession of predetermined gestures and tightly packed sequences of musicking. occasionally this clockwork is pleasantly interrupted---like a small group of some fashionably late concert-goers hurrying to their seats just before conductor runnicles gave the downbeat, their grand entrance to seats near the stage was met with good humour and forgiving chuckles all around---otherwise there are few surprises to be expected in these things. it’s easy then to forget completely of that aforementioned ritualistic purpose for which we regularly file into Roy Thomson Hall in our sunday best, and even more of the most significant participants of the ritual: the performers. they are, on any night, by far the main attraction on any given program. And on this program it felt as if the performers that mattered most. a pleasant reminded that more than the composers, or the score, or some particularly tricky technique demanded by either of those things, it is flesh-and-bone thereness of the instrumentalists on stage that gives a performance its highest meaning. that was the point small’s book was attempting. perhaps that is more obvious in other genres and musical traditions wherein improvisation and individual interpretation are presupposed, but my hodgepodge path to falling in love with orchestral music has also proved how easy it is to confuse the stratification of the importance of the multivarious elements that produce a symphony event. it doesn’t help that classical music is imbued with a peculiar otherness, more often than not the composer has been dead for ages---122 years in the case of brahms. i suspect this mis-stratification is commonplace both for the seasoned subscriber and occasional attendant. programs like the one we had friday night, however, make it much easier to connect with the music, if only because performers it was designed with the performers at top of mind. 

the evening began with the unexpected introduction to the program by shane kim, going on his eight year as a violinist with the TSO. there’s just something special about one member of the orchestra hyping another member of the orchestra, something seen more in sports than in concert halls. perhaps it’s merely a gimmick employed by an orchestra still awaiting the arrival of a permanent musical director, but this spotlighting of members of the orchestra is definitely something i’d like to see more of, inasmuch as it goes a little way in bridging that tremendous otherness of the works in this program. 

Courtesy of Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Jag Gundu

Courtesy of Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Jag Gundu

the first item on the program was brahms’ Symphony No.3, written after all the composer’s self-doubt about his symphonic abilities have been quelled: his first one was perhaps proof he could write a symphony that didn’t sound like beethoven; the second proof he could do something entirely different. with the third symphony, as with all third attempts, his creative excursions were given free reign without having to avoid or accounting for its predecessors. the main motif throughout the work was the use of the acronymic gimmick of the notes F-A-F, an abbreviation of the mantra Frei aber Froh (free but happy)---which is a spinoff on the more crestfallen mantra of his violinist friend joseph joachim’s Frei aber Einsam (free but alone). highlights of the first movement features melodies on wind instruments, with flutes and french horns layering contrasting colours. the work is  perhaps not emblematic of the Romantic era---just Romantic enough to inspire the TSO’s wordplay in the naming of the program---in fact it’s on the cerebral side of Romantic, self-conscious of its excursions in the direction of lightness. especially so with the second movement, a dolorous procession, gentle but stern; with a lush string section riding up in low gear next to the incessant activity in the wind sections, including a bassoon solo.  the final two movements are equally vibrant and were vigorously performed by the orchestra, with warm autumnal colours of the french horn balancing the justling of tempo changes on strings as the piece ramps up to a close. 

‘Richard Strauss’ by Jeremy Lewis ( ) for Blue Riband

‘Richard Strauss’ by Jeremy Lewis ( for Blue Riband

the second half of the evening is all strauss, beginning with the paired-down Concerto in D Major for Oboe and Small Orchestra and ending with his not so romantic Death and Transfiguration. sarah jeffrey, principal oboist of the TSO, owned her much anticipated spotlight as soloist for the oboe concerto. it has apparently been her lifelong goal to perform this particular concerto with an orchestra, and a dream come true to do so with the TSO. i couldn’t help but imagine the sarah jeffrey that picked up that instrument for the first time, bespelled perhaps by the high and acerbic sound of the double-reeded instrument; and the eons practising and reed-making, thirteen years in a top-tier orchestra before getting to perform this piece. for that half-hour, it her world as we were all tagging along for the ride. her excitement was easily communicated, dressed up for the event in a wonderfully flowing gown (all black, to match the rest of her colleague---a team player even in her time to shine). and she absolutely slayed. her performance was as much an exercise in enduring a marathon of pulmonic exertion as it was a show of a nearly-perfected rendition of the composition. it’s a fairly short work, it’s figurations tightly knitted, replete with quiet moments in the small orchestra for long paragraphs on the solo instrument. a little four-note quiver on cellos is the main motivation of the accompaniment on strings, along with secondary melodies on principal viola. the audience, clap-happy as we were from the start, responded with an ovation that lasted several curtain calls. (i want to make more of an effort to knowing more about the members of the TSO this season, these concertos for less highlighted instruments of the orchestra are a great to do so---a concerto for timpani would be nice). 

richard strauss wrote Death and Transfiguration at the time-tested age of twenty-five, a programmatic tone-poem in one movement of cataclysmic and cacophonic scale. the orchestra nearly doubles in size from that of the oboe concerto to create a raucous six-lane-highway of musical activity, made cohesive and beautiful by the expertise of runnicles’s direction. the program in question is that of a dying artist as imagined by strauss, gripped intermittently by death-pangs as by the visions of artistic ambitions unrealized; relief comes, as suggested by the title of the work, by a luminous and cathartic entrance into the eternal (many parallels to be drawn between this piece and Kopernikus, an opera by canadian composer claude vivier that was staged by Against the Grain Theatre earlier this year). another work that comes to mind is the most famous tone poem by strauss, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, his nine-part homage to the book by nietzsche of the same name (which the TSO will be producing in june). 

whatever the bizarre tetris of artistic and administrative parameters that go into forming a program, in this case it worked. it worked not only because of the technical excellence that the TSO maintains in every instance, but also because of the gratification of taking part in someone else’s big night. and, at least in my case, being made more conscious of the ritual of our musicking together through the celebration of those who’ve dedicated their life to that purpose.