Every year for the last 10, the Toronto Summer Music Festival injects a dose of cool music to contrast with the hot days of summer. This year, with the theme of “The New World” tying into the Pan Am Games, one of the calendar’s highlights was the YOA Orchestra of the Americas with pianist Ingrid Fliter, in partnership with Orchestre de la Francophonie. Artistic Director Douglas McNabney spent a few minutes before the performance talking about how the evening’s program would tie into the Pan Am Games, but as soon as conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto dropped the baton, no more words were needed.
The first piece was the somewhat exotic-sounding “Symphony No. 2 Sinfonía India” from one of Mexico’s most renowned composers, Carlos Chávez. One of the most interesting aspects of this symphony was that it was composed in one movement, going against the classical symphony form of four movements (fast, slow, semi-fast, very fast). But while it was remarkable in its brevity, Chávez took no shortcuts in depth, exploring multiple musical motifs and emotions.
Its only downside was some lazy repetition near the end, where Chávez seemed to run out of creative steam and instead fell back on simplistically tying up loose threads from the previous bars. But to their credit, the YOA Orchestra of the Americas carried on with strength and energy, with Prieto conducting each measure as though it was a Mozartian grand finale.
Ravel’s “Piano Concerto in G Major” was next, featuring Argentinian pianist Ingrid Fliter. While the name Ravel immediately brings to mind “Bolero”, perhaps his best known piece, his “Piano Concerto in G Major” carries the same weight in the musical know-all world. And if anyone was unfamiliar with the piece, Fliter’s delicate, yet controlled, playing ensured it would stay in their memories for quite a while.
She was able to attack the keys with precision and emotion, coaxing out the softest nuances in the upper register and balancing them with force in the lower. The applause that greeted her when she finished was so enthusiastic, she quickly returned to her bench to deliver an encore performance: a waltz by Chopin. It was an interesting selection because of the deceptive simplicity of the music, demanding a pianist who can be quite technically precise, and still elevate the notes to an emotionally majestic level.
The second half, which featured just the YOA Orchestra of the Americas, is where the musicians got a chance to shine in the spotlight and they rose to the challenge. Playing Dvořák’s “Symphony No. 9 in E Minor (‘From the New World’)”, a piece that’s so recognizable there’s inherent risk in not being able to distinguish oneself from every other version, the orchestra showed admirable spirit and vigour in making it their own. There were a couple moments, most noticeably at the beginning, when performances were too individual and not contributing to a cohesive whole, but Prieto managed to group them all together by the gently rolling “Largo” before finishing off with a thundering finale in the “Allegro con fuoco”.
But it was the orchestra‘s encore that really gave the audience a treat, as Prieto threw all musical performance rules out the window and treated listeners to the classical equivalent of an impromptu rock jam session. Orchestra members pulled out flags for their respective countries, wrapped them around their shoulders, and paraded around the stage in a Latin American jamboree of music and solos.
One of the most irritating things at any concert is when the performers encourage attendees to clap along or participate; a truly good performance will garner that through its own quality, whereas verbally asking for it shows a lack of earning it. And with this orchestra’s encore, audience members were clapping, cheering and whistling — and even discreetly pulling out their smartphones to record such awe-inspiring music.
If it’s any indication of how the rest of the Summer Music Festival will go, then all signs point to the 10th year being even better than the previous.