The Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the National Arts Centre Orchestra have a very special relationship, and I am delighted once again to be leading the Orchestra in our yearly visit. This concert features Russian repertoire, and includes two of the most popular works of the 20th century. Prokofiev’s beautiful First Violin Concerto is both lyrical and atmospheric, and among the composer’s most memorable music. Karen Gomyo is nothing short of spectacular in this showpiece. Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony is a monumental work, with a sweep and grandeur that shows the composer to be one of the greatest symphonists of the 20th century, and the true heir to Mahler. The concert opens with a new work by Canadian composer Emilie LeBel, a moody and colourful work of subtle hues and shades, by turns radiant and eerie.
Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto is one of my favourite works. I remember vividly the first time I heard it: I was about 13, sick at home with a high fever, and my mother had come home with a new CD of Maxim Vengerov playing this concerto. In my delirium, I was completely transported into an otherworldly musical cave of wonders, immediately falling in love with this highly imaginative and moving work, listening to it over and over again. My favourite moment is when the music culminates in a dramatic climax towards the end of the last movement, which then quietly ascends high up into the ethereal, haunting melody from the very beginning of the concerto, before finally dissipating into silence. It always leaves me with goosebumps!
Tonight’s concert continues the annual exchange, since the 2004–2005 season, between the NAC Orchestra and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. The TSO’s most recent visit was in May 2019, with Sir Andrew Davis and guest soloist Louis Lortie. The TSO will present the NAC Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto on February 6, 2020.
Born in 1979
Canadian composer Emilie Cecilia LeBel specializes in concert music composition, the creation of mixed works that employ digital technologies, and intermedia concert works. Described as having a “deft compositional hand, unwilling to hurry ideas,” and “impressively subtle and sensuous,” her work inhabits sonic worlds that are primarily concerned with textural landscapes, resonance, and variances in colour.
LeBel completed her Doctorate in composition at the University of Toronto in 2013, under the guidance of Gary Kulesha and Robin Elliott, and recently returned home to Canada after teaching at the University of Montana for three years. She is based in Edmonton, Alberta, where she is Assistant Professor at MacEwan University; and frequently returns home to Toronto for her position as Affiliate Composer with the TSO.
Her compositions have been performed and recorded across North and South America, Europe and the U.K., by Mark Takeshi McGregor, Women on the Verge, Ultraviolet, Duo Nyans, Vancouver Symphony, Cecilia String Quartet, Quatuor Bozzini, Arditti Quartet, Land’s End Ensemble, Luciane Cardassi, National Youth Orchestra of Canada, Thin Edge New Music Collective, Onyx Trio, 21C Festival, Winnipeg New Music Festival and junctQín keyboard collective, among others. Her artistic practice has been recognized through numerous awards, including the Toronto Arts Foundation Emerging Artist Award (2015), and the Canadian Federation of University Women’s Elizabeth Massey Award (2012). She has also received support through the Ontario Arts Council, Canada Council for the Arts, The Banff Centre, Canadian Music Centre, University of Toronto, University of Montana and the SOCAN Foundation.
Composed in 2019
World premiere, TSO commission
Here are the composer’s thoughts about unsheltered:
…In this humming and doubled land, hold worry, only me
and I get older or I grow farther from myself and I always most love the moment before now…
— Joanna Doxey, Book of Worry
Much of my recent artistic work has been a contemplation of the surrounding landscapes that I inhabit, reflecting on these sites, smells, shapes and sounds that are constantly in flux. Often finding refuge in small moments of calm outside the city, my music tends to embody these fleeting moments, juxtaposing them against the daily experiences of my city-dwelling life.
I began working on this project during spring 2019, when a large portion of Alberta directly to the north of Edmonton was on fire. Counterpoint to this crisis locally, was a constant barrage of news information surrounding both the migrant crisis and the climate crisis. The notion of shelter felt very much in focus while I sat down to compose every day – my surroundings near and far feeling tenuous, slippery, and humming with an uneasy energy, suggesting something inevitable. This work considers the necessity for refuge, with music shaped by lines that grasp upwards interspersed with slippery glissando; leading to moments where everything tumbles downwards; and finally contrasted by moments of lightness and retreat.
— Program note by David Perlman
Born in Sontzovka, Russia (now the Ukraine), April 27, 1891
Died in Moscow, Russia, March 5, 1953
Prokofiev began his first violin concerto in early 1915 but completed it only in the summer of 1917, shortly before the revolution that would propel him into two decades of self-imposed exile in the West. The premiere, in Paris, on October 18, 1923, was a failure, for the fashionable Parisians thought the concerto insufficiently “modern.” The music is certainly characteristic of the avant-garde young Prokofiev in some ways (economy of form, expert craftsmanship, bold harmonies, motoric rhythms, irony), but the Parisians had a point: this is at heart a profoundly Romantic piece.
It is simple in form, unabashedly melodic and deeply expressive; the music unfolds naturally and transparently, though it is often brilliant and virtuosic, too. Prokofiev noted five basic tendencies in his early work: classical, modern, motoric, lyrical and “scherzo-ish” (i.e., whimsical, humorous, mocking). All five operate, to varying degrees, in this concerto, though the lyrical receives particular emphasis; indeed, the unconventional three-movement plan (slow – fast – moderate) places the more expansive and lyrical movements in the most dramatically important positions.
Prokofiev described the opening of the first movement as “meditative,” and marked the solo part here sognando – “dreaming.” The violin introduces the main theme over quietly trembling violas, and, as the theme unfolds at a leisurely pace, the orchestral accompaniment becomes increasingly luxuriant. Like many nineteenth-century slow movements, this movement is in a three-part form (ABA), with musical tension building through a contrasting middle section and resolving in a reprise of the opening theme.
The Scherzo is an utter contrast – short, fast, tart and hard-driving, as well as nervous and mischievous in character. The scoring is mercurial, the violin part brittle and percussive. Where the first movement was warmly and sincerely expressive, the Scherzo is savage and sarcastic – a diabolical dance in which relief is infrequent and brief.
In the finale, however, irony is quickly rejected in favour of renewed lyricism. No less melodic than the first movement, the finale is even richer, denser, and more intensely passionate; it unfolds as a seemingly endless outpouring of melody to which the whole orchestra makes a crucial contribution. The closing pages are radiant. Near the end, the opening theme of the first movement unexpectedly returns, and the concerto ends as it began – dreaming.
— Program note by Kevin Bazzana
Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, September 25, 1906
Died in Moscow, Russia, August 9, 1975
In 1948, in a notorious Communist Party decree, Shostakovich was condemned as a “formalist” whose music was not compatible with Soviet values. Only after the death of Stalin in March of 1953 would he risk going public with a new symphony – his Tenth, composed quickly that summer and fall. First performed in Leningrad on December 17, it aroused some heated criticism in official circles (too modernistic, too gloomy), but was a great success with musicians and the public, and ultimately rescued Shostakovich’s reputation and career.
The meaning of the Tenth Symphony is by no means simple, though. Shostakovich’s own public comments on the work, tailored to Soviet tastes, offer little insight, often reading like parodies of Communist banalities: (“In this work, I wanted to convey human feelings and passions.”) In Testimony: The Memoirs of Shostakovich, “related to and edited by” Solomon Volkov, and published in 1979, he is quoted as saying that in the Tenth he intended to depict the tragedy of Stalinism, and that the Scherzo was actually “a musical portrait of Stalin.” But these words cannot be taken at face value either: there was and still is fractious debate about the authenticity of Testimony.
A Russian musicologist, Nelly Kravetz, in an article written in the mid-1990s, argues that that the elusive Allegretto, rather than being political, was inspired by a romantic fixation Shostakovich had developed for a former student, Elmira Nazirova – with the enigmatic, pastoral horn motto that haunts the middle of the movement being a musical monogram of her name, nestled within outer sections in which, for the first time, Shostakovich incorporated his own four-note musical monogram (D – E-flat – C – B-natural) in a work. Those four notes, according to the German musical alphabet, spelled “DSCH,” his abbreviation for his own name, and it is a motif that goes on to haunt much of his later music. So, whatever the overall politics of the work may be, an “inner program” of a romantic nature seems also to be in play.
The symphony as a whole is predominantly tragic. The first movement is a dark and sometimes bitter meditation. A great dramatic arc, it builds to a furious, painfully dissonant climax, in which massive brass sonorities are unleashed to overwhelming effect. But it ends as it began – in gloom. The concise Allegro that follows, by contrast, is mostly fast and furious fortissimo – raw, grim and brutal. Whether it parodies Stalin or not, it offers a sinister portrait of power and violence wielded without constraint. Following the Allegretto, a sombre, portentous Andante introduces the symphony’s upbeat Allegro finale.
Like many of Shostakovich’s finales, this one is problematical. Some hear it as a sincere effort at a plausibly optimistic finale, in accord with Soviet aesthetics. Some hear it as a critique of those Soviet aesthetics – an enforced gaiety that implies an ironic or subversive stance. Others hear the movement as a cynical, bitter capitulation to authority – a betrayal of a tragic work. All, however, would likely agree that the finale is only superficially a “happy ending.” The music is complex and mercurial both structurally and psychologically, eventually re-acquiring the tragic power of the first movement. Its ambivalence suggests that its meaning – the meaning of the whole symphony, in fact – is both personal and political. It is a work, after all, that Shostakovich put his name not only on, but in.
— Program note by Kevin Bazzana
TSO 2019–2020 Season Presenting Sponsor: BMO
The appearances of Sir Andrew Davis with the TSO this season are generously supported by Hans and Susan Brenninkmeyer.
We gratefully recognize Mary Beck’s generous patronage of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in the 2019–20 season.
Sir Andrew Davis
Interim Artistic Director
Principal Pops Conductor
RBC Resident Conductor & TSYO Conductor
RBC Affiliate Composer