Review: Conductor John Storgaards makes electric début with Toronto Symphony Orchestra

Finnish conductor John Storgaards makes impressive début with Toronto Symphony Orchestra on Feb. 16.

There was electricity in the air along with the music during the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s entire performance on Thursday night at Roy Thomson Hall.

Between visiting Finnish conductor John Storgaards, violin soloist Sarah Chang, the orchestra’s own fine playing and an intense program of works by Jean Sibelius, Dmitri Shostakovich and Ludwig van Beethoven, this turned into an ideal night at the symphony.

All the pieces came together to inspire goosebumps at every turn of the score.

Even Beethoven’s popular Symphony No. 5, heard so many times in so many different ways, sounded fresh and recharged, as if it had just spent a few weeks on a balmy beach.

I have to admit that I’ve heard the Fifth a few times too many, but when a conductor presents a performance as clearly focused as what I heard on Thursday night, it becomes a potent reminder on why pieces like this belong in the pantheon of great symphonic works.

Storgaards, who has taken on new duties as the principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony, is making his Toronto début. He made such a fine show of his first concert that he should join the roster of great repeat visitors on the TSO’s podium.

He was supremely in charge of the orchestra, managing to extract a full, rich sound that pulsed with life – sometimes even menace.

Storgaards dug into the Beethoven as a hungry child into a jar of freshly baked chocolate cookies. He was equally willful as he accompanied Chang in Shostakovich’s dark Violin Concerto No. 1 – making of the orchestra an ideal counterweight to her tightly wound performance.

Chang can switch her sound from silken to steely in the blink of an eye – an ability she used to striking dramatic effect in the concerto. One could have heard a cell phone drop during the long, treacherous cadenza that bridges the third and the final movements of the piece.

This is such a fraught concerto, written in a backward pattern that begins the piece with a slow-movement start, that it requires a special talent to extract both tension and lyricism. It was something that Chang managed with uncommon power.

Even the gentle opening work on the program, Sibelius’s Swan of Tuonela, floated on the darkly shimmering undertones the composer used to depict the bird that sings on the dark waters of the afterlife in the great Finnish epic, Kalevala.

TSO English horn player Cary Ebli embodied the swan with grace, while Storgaards’ clear-headed reading of the score highlighted all of Sibelius’s tricks of orchestration.

The whole made for memorable concertgoing. Catch Saturday’s repeat performance, if you can.

John Terauds


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