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Violinist Leila Josefowicz burns while Toronto Symphony Orchestra fiddles

Violinist Leila Josefowicz burns while Toronto Symphony Orchestra fiddles
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Violinist Leila Josefowicz performs with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ludovic Morlot.  (NICK WONS)

Toronto Symphony Orchestra with violinist Leila Josefowicz. Ludovic Morlot, conductor. Repeats Jan. 12 at Roy Thomson Hall and Jan. 13 at George Weston Recital Hall. tso.ca or 416-593-1285

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented a strong program spanning the first three decades of European music on Thursday night. It was good for feeding and feeling the tug of war between tradition and experimentation. But it fell short of that potential in its execution.

The most significant disappointment was the opening, which did little to set a fine mood. The program began with the Suite From The Threepenny Opera by German composer Kurt Weill. The jaunty selection of tunes from the Weimar-era musical stage hit gives the orchestra’s wind players a chance to shine. And how often do we get to hear a banjo on a symphony stage?

But instead of serving the music and the audience by placing the TSO wind players at the front of the stage, conductor Ludovic Morlot stood on a podium surrounded by the empty chairs of the string players. The brass and woodwinds had been abandoned at the back of the stage, where they usually sit.

I can appreciate the logistical challenge of moving chairs and stands around well before intermission. But if you are going to showcase a section of the orchestra while the others sit in the green room, leaving a visual vacuum makes very little sense.

The interpretation of Weill’s acerbic music itself lacked verve. The sound of the physically scattered players did not always cohere.

Morlot, who is the music director of the Seattle Symphony, was joined by Mississauga-born, U.S.-based violinist Leila Josefowicz when the full orchestra arrived onstage. Since making her stage debut as a teenager, she has grown as a powerful, charismatic performer. She certainly was on fire in Igor Stravinsky’s D Major Violin Concerto.

As we can expect from Stravinsky, it’s pretty spiky music. But unlike most violin concertos, where the soloist gets the full spotlight, this piece has the violinist engaging in a sort of dialogue with the orchestra over four movements.

Josefowicz was an electric presence, doing things with her bow that might put many other virtuosi to shame. But Morlot was a meek collaborator and the orchestra did not rise to the soloist’s razor-sharp interpretation. The result felt lopsided and uneven.

The featured piece of the evening was the Symphony No. 2 by Jean Sibelius, a dramatic, sweeping appeal to early 20th-century Finnish nationalism. It is a classical, four-movement symphony in form but realized in a starker musical esthetic that gives the woodwinds and brass more weight to carry.

As usual, the TSO’s winds did not disappoint. The strings, which acquired a full, lush sound under Peter Oundjian’s musical leadership, were in great form as well.

Sibelius’s Second is one of those masterpieces that has a momentum of its own. But remembering the magnificent work conductor Thomas Dausgaard has done with this piece in Toronto made Morlot’s workmanlike take sound as pale as a snowbird getting on a post-Christmas flight to sunnier climes.

This particular program offers interesting juxtapositions of style and content that complement each other. I suspect that the place to better appreciate it might be the more intimate George Weston Recital Hall on Sunday, which will give the TSO’s sound a stronger presence.
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