The TSO's joyful ode to Oundjian
Last night at Roy Thomson Hall, there seemed to converge a truly Torontonian night of celebration. The temperature hovered around 30 degrees, and King Street West was alive with the signs of an urban Canadian summer: excitable tourists with theatre tickets, locals dining on patios, commuters pouring in and out of streetcars, and people of all ages taking advantage of the city-gifted Adirondack chairs for an oh-so-Canadian photo op.
I was amid it all to hear the Toronto Symphony Orchestra play Beethoven's infamous Ninth Symphony. That's a show unto itself, but this Saturday night came with many reasons to celebrate. Roy Thomson Hall was nearly full, always a heartwarming sight. And violinist Hyung-Sun Paik was playing her last concert with the TSO, retiring after 38 years (!). In fact, my concert date and I were sat amid Paik's whole enthusiastic family, who had come to hear her one last time.
But front and centre was Peter Oundjian, who, after 14 years as the TSO's Music Director, was conducting his final concert. When I interviewed him, Oundjian said that the choice of Beethoven's Ninth, with its deafeningly populist themes, was a perfect way for the maestro to close his official tenure in Toronto. In fact, Oundjian's original vision for the concert was to have an enormous chorus - five, six choirs strong - so that it would seem that all of Toronto were singing Schiller's famous "Ode to Joy". In the end, he opted for the singular and formidable Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, which happily left open plenty of seats for an audience.
Beethoven's Ninth is full of anticipation. The chorus is sat behind the orchestra, poised and ready for their inevitable time to shine. The symphony itself feels like an entire world, encompassing at once the life of one man - I always like it to be Beethoven's - and the lives of all people. It feels as though Beethoven offers up his story first, a conversation starter with humanity, letting us know of his hardships and his joys and his sense of humour, like an invitation for us to respond. Maybe that's why the goosebumps are unavoidable at that anticipated response, the entrance of the baritone's, "O, Freude". How can it be that one voice feels so much like a release of tension, a grand arrival?
The performance was excellent by all involved - indeed, it couldn't have gone poorly. The TMC was in wonderful form, and soloists Kirsten MacKinnon, Lauren Segal, Andrew Haji, and Tyler Duncan made impressive work of their brief, yet notoriously difficult, lines in the score.
It's a thrill to hear a famous tune played live. It's exponentially more thrilling when it's played live, and played with gusto that hits you right between the eyes. Oundjian tore through the final sweeps of the Choral Symphony, leading right into the thunderous applause that erupted with no hesitation. There was a warmth and gratitude that moved from the audience to the stage as Oundjian's listeners thanked him - with that Canadian trope, the standing ovation - for his 14 years. The genius of Beethoven was layered upon the awe that comes with considering the maestro's contribution to Toronto's arts-hub status in the world. Plus, those final chords sent us out into the heat of the Canada Day long weekend, making this generous night at the TSO very Canadian indeed.