Photo by Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles Times
On Friday evening, someone I had bumped into at the Toronto Symphony's concert last Wednesday night -- a concert I reviewed with four out of four stars in the next day's Star -- asked me if I really thought that the Toronto Symphony was playing at the level of the world's best orchestras. I said that, yes, I truly believed that.
I still hear doubts about our hometown orchestra all the time.
The nasty days, nearly 10 years ago, that followed the resignation of music director Jukka-Peka Saraste, the organization's brush with bankruptcy which led, to among other things, a particularly long period without a permanent music director, and a temporary move to its decrepit former home at Massey Hall while Roy Thomson Hall got its acoustic refit, demoralized the musicians to the point that they often sounded downright terrible.
Marketing people always say that bad impressions linger far longer than good ones, and that has proven to be the case with Torontonians and their orchestra. Despite being able to sell nearly 90 per cent oftickets at Roy Thomson Hall, the orchestra hasn't been able to convert everyone. Many of those people who don't go to the symphony frequently still believe this city has a second-rate orchestra. This, despite dozens and dozens of reviews in the Star and other papers that have clearly said that this is one fine group of professionals.
Coming home from the National Arts Centre Orchestra's visit on Saturday night, I realised that I should have qualified my answer regarding the Toronto Symphony's quality, noting that the conductor makes the biggest difference. There is such a deep and wide pool of instrumental talent available out there that a high level of skill at the music desk is a given these days.
Yet an orchestra can sound completely different from one programme to the next, depending on who is standing on the podium.
The Los Angeles Times had a beautiful profile of conductor Lorin Maazel on Saturday that went straight to the heart of the matter. Not a man to mince words in the name of modesty, Maazel told Barbara Isenberg:
"The moment a real conductor takes charge of an orchestra, the sound of that orchestra changes. Each musician needs to know what is required of him in terms of rhythm, phrasing and dynamic balance. When that happens, the musician is put at his ease and can think about beauty and sound, intonation, inflection -- all the other things he would like to think about."
That's all we need to know.
Here is an interview with Maazel that the Philharmonia Orchestra prepared last year. It includes an anecdote about how a post office in Austria stayed open an extra hour so that he could finish writing a new piece of music at the last minute: