Oundjian conducts a favourite: Vaughan Williams at the TSOReview
What better music to listen to in November than Ralph Vaughan Williams, #AmIRight?
Wednesday night at Roy Thomson Hall, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra with the help of a jam-packed guests list made up of pianist Louis Lortie, oboist Sarah Jeffrey, violist Teng Li, soprano Carla Huhtanen, mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo, tenor Lawrence Wiliford, baritone Tyler Duncan and the Elmer Iseler Singers. A favourite composer of conductor and TSO Music Director Peter Oundjian’s, he refers to Vaughan Williams as “…possibly England’s most significant composer.”
Born of a wealthy family, he remained humble and worked in a wide variety of musical activities. “Uncle Ralph” was well-known in his musical community, writing for community orchestras and collecting folk songs. His lagging career received a much-needed injection of inspiration upon his discovery of folk and Tudor-era music: hence the TSO’s opening number:
Vaughan Williams wrote Fantasia on Greensleeves for string orchestra and it shows us clearly and plainly his love for both Tudor-era music - the tune being attributed to Henry VIII, and folk music - which is heard in dancing abundance during the development sections. The harp featured prominently in moments of stillness before the full contingent of the orchestra swept us off into song, which brought a decidedly faerie (yes - I spelled it that way) festivity. Following on the heels of that was the stunning Concerto for Oboe and String Orchestra, a tour-de-force of a piece that had Ms. Jeffrey playing pretty much every measure from start to finish. The piece was trademark Vaughan Williams with a cantabile melody throughout the orchestral parts punctuated by roulades and arpeggiated passages from the solo instruments. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I. Love. Oboes.
The first half wrapped with a piece that reeked of Oratorio (in a great way), Serenade to Music is a large piece for full orchestra, four soloists and chamber choir. Written to celebrate conductor Sir Richard Wood’s 50th Anniversary on the podium and was conducted for the first time by Wood at Royal Albert Hall. The text has been adapted from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and discussed the power and sway music holds over us.
Soprano Carla Huhtanen sang with her bright, piercing yet warm tone and was a perfect fit for the composer’s score. Her bloom over the apogee of each phrase was thrilling every time. Emily D’Angelo brought a strong dark mezzo to the mix and flashed some incredibly impressive chest voice. Tenor Lawrence Williford demonstrated yet again why this kind of work is definitely in his wheelhouse, I found that his diction was the clearest throughout the piece. Baritone Tyler Duncan brought and almost Broadway kind of production to his vocals that suited the higher parts of the tessitura quite well. His lower end warmed up magnificently and still carried throughout the hall.
Rounding out the vocal aspect of the piece, the Elmer Iseler Singers sang with a beautiful, haunting quality that instilled a sense of introspection. My only qualms would have to be the diction, RTH is notorious for gobbling up consonants as if it were me left alone with a tray of brownies, so when using texts as beloved as Shakespeare’s, it does detract from the performance. Other than that, I found it a shame that this was the only time we saw the four soloists as they sang magnificently together. I was craving more.
Flos Campi started the second half. Scored for viola, string orchestra and chamber choir, the piece uses wordless text to depict the “flowers in the field” coming to bloom. I found this a much better fit for the Iseler Singers. With the impediment of consonants out of the way, their expression seemed to grow in leaps and bounds - and that’s one heck of an alto section they’ve got going on there. The singers and instrumentalists danced their way through folk-tinged numbers that seemed to tumble over each other gleefully. Teng Li’s viola was warm, rich, and earthy.
Then came the infamous Piano Concerto in C - a piece apparently panned at its premiere due to the fact that the pianist couldn’t play it. This was not the case on Wednesday night. Louis Lortie handled the complex rhythms and harmonies with deft precision and artistry. It was definitely a highlight of the night.
Capping off the evening was a performance of the Overture to The Wasps. Commissioned by Cambridge University’s Trinity College Greek Play Committee, the piece was Vaughan Williams first notable piece of incidental theatre music. The play by Aristophanes tells of a Greek court where the judges (Wasps) tend to take too long deliberating the cases brought by a people who are all too willing and eager to sue each other. It started with the characteristic buzzing and then exploded into a rollicking overture of dancey folk tunes. I’ve heard the piece played before, but not quite like this. The skill of the TSO brought this score to life.
Watching a skilled conductor such as Oundjian conduct a composer so dear to his heart was definitely something special. Toronto is blessed with an abundance of musical talent - everybody’s, like, really awesome, you guys - and when the season gets busy like this, the music lover, not just the musician, comes to life.
And Messiah season is right around the corner…