Christopher Plummer kicks TSO into high gear

09.23.11
Christopher Plummer
The Globe & Mail

By Colin Eatock

In the tradition-bound world of classical music, there are conventions that dictate how a symphony orchestra should begin a new season. Typically, an orchestra will ride into the hall on war-horse repertoire: a major symphony, or a big concerto with a prominent soloist.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra threw this model out the window on Thursday night for the opening of its new season at Roy Thomson Hall – there was no symphony, and no concerto. Nevertheless, the TSO put on a big show, bringing in the Toronto Children’s Chorus and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. And for star power, they invited actor Christopher Plummer to the stage as a narrator.

The closest thing to a war horse on the program was Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. But soon music director Peter Oundjian entered the realm of the new and unfamiliar: Behold the Night, a world premiere by Toronto composer Larysa Kuzmenko; and Henry V: A Shakespeare Scenario, a rarely heard work by England's William Walton.

Happily, there was a strong thread holding these three works together. William Shakespeare’s spirit hovered over the concert, and demonstrated what an inspiration the Bard can be for composers.

In 1869 Tchaikovsky penned his Romeo and Juliet, capturing the drama and passion of Verona’s star-crossed lovers. However, the TSO, under Oundjian, left much of the passion on the page in their careful and precise reading. Lengthy swaths of the performance sounded smallish – and even when it was loud, it was a perfunctory kind of loud, lacking in grandeur.

Kuzmenko’s new work, Behold the Night, is a two-movement setting of a pair of poems from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Over hill, over dale,” and “Now the hungry lion roars.” Scored for orchestra and children’s choir, it’s a harmonically conservative work – as charming and colourful as any film score by Danny Elfman or John Williams.

Thrust into the spotlight in this piece, the Toronto Children’s Choir rose to the occasion with a vibrant performance. Even in the second movement’s dangerously exposed a cappella passage, the choir was strong and secure.

With Plummer’s appearance, the concert acquired an added dimension. At the age of 81 the Canadian actor is still going strong – and, of late, he has taken a strong interest in performing with orchestras. This summer he appeared in an orchestral concert to open Ottawa’s Music and Beyond Festival, and earlier this month he narrated Walton’s Henry V for the New York Philharmonic.

Walton’s Henry V began its life as a score for a movie version of Shakespeare’s play, filmed during the Second World War. It’s patriotic propaganda from start to finish, invoking the glories of the English victory at Agincourt. This isn’t especially deep music, but it’s certainly effective.

Plummer took to his role as narrator like a fish to water – declaiming excerpts from Shakespeare’s play left, right and centre as he wandered about the stage. Sometimes he addressed the audience, sometimes the orchestra, and sometimes he spoke to no one in particular. Eschewing podium or script, Plummer memorized not only his lines but also his entrances within the orchestral score. It was a masterful performance.

Here, Oundjian was also on top of his game. The conductor carefully controlled his musical forces while Plummer was speaking – but in the purely musical passages unleashed an electrifying energy in his orchestra.

While the choral portions of Henry V are not substantial, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and Toronto Children’s Chorus brought the piece to a glorious finish with a resonant wall of choral sound.

The program is repeated on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.