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Toronto Symphony serves up blazing birthday cake to Samuel Barber

Gil Shaham
Toronto Star

By John Terauds

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s 100th birthday cake for composer Samuel Barber was a blaze of candles on Wednesday night at Roy Thomson Hall.

The evening, entirely devoted to the music of this American master, was a succession of Wow! moments from an intensely atmospheric beginning to a blazing end.

Superbly led by music director Peter Oundjian, this was our city’s flagship orchestra at its very best. It served up impeccably rendered interpretations of a representative sample of Barber’s work, spanning his early days as a composer in the 1930s, to the pinnacle of his success and popularity in the early 1960s. (He died in 1981, following a long creative dry spell.)

The evening’s program was given additional heft and interest by two spectacular soloists: Canadian Jon Kimura Parker, playing the Piano Concerto, and American Gil Shaham, in the Violin Concerto.

The concert began with an intensely luminous reading of Barber’s most famous piece: the Adagio for Strings, which he adapted out of the slow movement of his nearly forgotten String Quartet in 1935. This is one of those chestnuts that’s been played and heard so many times that its contours are often too slick and worn. Oundjian’s supremely focused direction gave it a shape so clear, that it felt like one could reach out and touch it.

The music sounded as fresh as if the ink were barely dry on each musician’s score.

The orchestra and its conductor were equally impressive in the Symphony No. 1, created a year later. Oundjian introduced it to the audience as a masterpiece, then proceeded to show us exactly why this is so. It is an architectural wonder clad in strands of gorgeously wrought melody.

The two concertos were equally captivating, thanks to magnetic performances from the two soloists. Parker tossed off the fierce piano part with panache and a big dollop of lyrical aplomb. Shaham used his bow as a light sabre, casting intense beams of sunshine on this already-luminous showpiece.

Simply put, neither a birthday celebration nor a concert could possibly get any better than this uplifting, energizing night at the symphony. Missing these performances is your loss.

Wednesday night’s concert was recorded by CBC Radio 2 for future broadcast. Oundjian and the TSO reprise the Symphony and the Adagio on Saturday night, in a program that also includes George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, played by Parker.