The opening concert of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s eighth annual New Creations festival at Roy Thomson Hall was a potent modern brew on Thursday night.
And the most potent display of all came from the conductor: Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös.
In all four pieces, one of them his own, Eötvös showed uncommon control over the orchestra and uncommon depth in his shaping of the scores.
It’s usual to see conductors of new music as traffic cops, resolutely keeping time and making sure that everyone stays together from beginning to end. But Eötvös was far beyond this type of conducting. Working without a baton, he had breathtaking command over interpretive detail that made even the music that would have been new to him vibrate with a special intensity.
The most overtly impressive piece was the opening This Isn’t Silence, by Toronto composer Brian Current. It’s a clever work that has the shape and feel of a festival overture, cloaked in what sounds like instrumental hubbub.
Current introduced the piece by saying he passionately believes that contemporary music should reflect the time and place it was written in. This Isn’t Silence certainly captures a slice of modern urban life in gripping sound.
This is extroverted, muscular music where chaos and order rub elbows, like commuters on a crowded Red Rocket. In this instance, they were given a swift kick in their backsides by Eötvös’s brilliant command of the score — and the orchestra players’ exceptionally focused playing.
All of the four pieces on this programme felt comfortable alongside each other, reflecting some element – large and tiny — of what we go through day to day in a big city.
Claude Vivier’s Lonely Child, gorgeously sung by soprano Barbara Hannigan, gave a taste of alienation and a search for comfort.
Its hypnotic, repetitive structure is similar to that of popular Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s work, but with far more imaginative use of the orchestra.
It took a while to get around Hannigan’s amplified voice set apart from the unamplified orchestra, but, ultimately, it added a spectral quality to her work, amplifying Vivier’s haunting (and haunted) effects.
Eötvös’s own Seven, a violin concerto memorializing the seven astronauts killed in the Columbia shuttle disaster in 2003, was an abstract evocation of loss, with a radiant solo turn by violinist Akiko Suwanai at its centre.
This was the least easy-to-grasp piece of the evening, but having added spatial effects of six violins scattered about the hall’s upper balconies added to Eötvös’s rich aural textures.
The programme’s closing Messages, by György Kurtág, were sharply drawn miniatures that included a nice turn by David Fallis’s Choir 21. Kurtag’s sharply contrasted miniatures were the orchestral equivalents of tiny charcoal sketches someone might want to hang in a little cluster on a wall.
Roy Thomson Hall was barely past the half-full point, even with the TSO offering last-minute tickets anywhere in the house for a measly $10. It’s a shame, because this was new (or at least recent) music presented as well as anyone could ever expect to hear.
Fortunately, the concert was recorded for broadcast on CBC Radio 2’s In Concert on April 15 and The Signal on May 5.
There are two more chances to see Eötvös in action with the TSO, on Saturday (in a programme that includes the Kronos Quartet and a solo turn by principal viola Tend Li) and next Wednesday (which features the Canadian premiere of a new cello concerto by Eötvös, performed by TSO principal cello Joseph Johnson).
For full details, click here.
Among the other things Eötvös is doing while in town for New Creations, he is a special guest at a New Music Concerts programme on March 10. Details here.