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Pianist Kirill Gerstein provides keyboard fireworks as conductor Giancarlo Guerrero supplies hip-swinging fun

05.17.13
Giancarlo Guerrero
Toronto Star

By John Terauds

To twist a cliché, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and guest pianist Kirill Gerstein taught an early-evening audience on Wednesday that you can teach an old warhorse new tricks.

The crowd at Roy Thomson Hall rose boisterously to its feet as the Russian-born pianist finished playing Peter Ilytch Tchaikovsky’s perennially popular Piano Concerto No. 1 because he managed to augment this big, three-movement showpiece from 1875 with a breath of fresh lyricism to go with the keyboard fireworks.

It also helped that guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero was able to draw out a whole lot of unexpected dynamic range and hip-swinging fun out of the accompaniment, making for a beautifully and evenly matched performance — a feat that is far rarer than one would expect.

Wednesday’s shortened Afterworks program, designed to get patrons in after work and out the door before 8 p.m., was an all-Russian affair characterized by rhythm and colour.

The opening piece was Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture from 1888. It’s a strange, stop-and-start affair that ranges wildly from the most tender of woodwind solos to all-out stomping celebration.

In many ways, it’s the equivalent of taking a symphony orchestra out to a track-and-field meet, where each section of players gets to run, jump and toss in a show of athletic musical abilities.

The Toronto Symphony players, who have reached a new level of fine playing over the course of this season, were flawless. And what made the music compellingly human was the nuance Guerrero managed to tease out in the process.

The Tchaikovsky Concerto unfurled in the same vein, turning the whole evening into a showcase of fine artistry.

The Toronto Symphony’s Afterworks concerts are engagingly hosted by CBC Radio’s Tom Allen, who was on hand to provide historical background and colourful anecdotes related to the music.

The Russian program is augmented on Thursday and Saturday by Béla Bartók’s riveting Concerto for Orchestra, another means by which the TSO and Guerrero will be able to test their mettle. Don’t miss it.