Good old Beethoven beats Holt's new ghosts

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra was in fantastic form at Roy Thomson Hall on Wednesday night under visiting Scottish conductor Douglas Boyd. Interestingly, in a program that featured the North American premiere of a new work, it was one of the most over-performed and over-recorded pieces of symphonic music that made for the most rewarding listening.

Under Boyd’s iron grip over the assembled instrumentalists, Ludwig van Beethoven’s ba-da-ba-daaa Symphony No. 5, first heard in the Vienna of 1814, sounded as fresh as if the ink were barely dry on the page. The orchestra was tight and intensely detailed in articulation as Boyd led a performance deeply intense in its dynamic contrasts and varying speeds.

So many nuances in Beethoven’s score were double-underlined to pique our interest that the “aha!” moments tumbled off the stage in rapid succession. The same was true for the evening’s opening piece, the short but equally dramatic overture to Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio, which had its premiere the same year.

Quite simply, this was symphonic playing at its most engaging.

The old chestnuts were meant to contrast with a percussion concerto written by British composer Simon Holt for his countryman, Colin Currie. Premiered to critical praise in 2008, a table of noises certainly managed to live up to its title, but that’s faint praise.

Holt’s piece is a series of six solo vignettes and five orchestral meditations titled “ghosts.” Each section allows Currie to connect with a different compartment of his percussionist’s tool box, giving the audience much to marvel at.

The reduced orchestra relies mostly on the winds for its contribution, but the sounds are episodic.

Currie is phenomenally gifted, but the music repeatedly failed to connect the soloist in a dialogue with sections of the orchestra. Instead, the music is more babble than speech. It is like a child in a proverbial candy store of rhythmic and percussive temptations, each sampled greedily, but none savoured.

Holt’s music certainly engages the gut as well as the intellect. But there’s little for the heart, whereas the two Beethoven pieces satisfied all three – and then some.

[via Toronto Star]

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