Written by Emilio Bernardo-Ciddio
The world-renowned Berlin Philharmonic made its fifth appearance in Toronto two weeks ago, ending their 23 years of absence and filling our Roy Thomson Hall, the home of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. On Tuesday night, the Berlin performed Eclat by Boulez and Mahler’s Symphony No. 7. On Wednesday night, they performed a suite of small pieces written by Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg, and closed with the legendary Symphony No. 2 by Brahms. The orchestra was led by their current head conductor, Sir Simon Rattle.
Roy Thomson Hall is an aesthetically and acoustically beautiful performance hall that maintains a comfortably relaxed, yet intelligent and modern atmosphere. There are few regulations, such as a lack of a dress code, that allow the concert hall to be a safe and approachable space for audiences of all ages, ethnicities, and economic backgrounds. This long-awaited performance drew out some heavy hitters in the GTA music community, as several professors and professionals from institutions and ensembles throughout the GTA were in attendance.
On the Wednesday night that I attended, the repertoire called for an extremely large ensemble. A 33-piece wind section was balanced against an enormous string section and a startlingly large percussion section. For such a large group, the range of dynamics and subtlety achieved in the performance was unbelievable.
At the beginning of the performance, Rattle explained that the sets of pieces for orchestra by Schoenberg and his pupils Berg and Webern would be performed as one long piece for orchestra that captures a portion of modern music history. The pieces were played with no breaks in between, forming an hour-long exploration of Schoenberg’s compositional legacy. His Five Pieces for Orchestra, written in 1909, include characteristic features of his music at the time such as pointillism and tone colour melody, atonality, extreme dynamic ranges, ostinato and canon, and embedded ratios and numbers within the compositional framework of the piece. Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra, also written in 1909, exhibited a strong influence from his teacher’s works, and focused particularly on timbre in a series of very short pieces. Webern explores many options of creating new and interesting timbres by mixing techniques, instrument groups, and equipment, such as mutes in the brass section. Though silence is used extensively by all three composers, Webern utilizes it in very effective and unique ways that sets his piece apart from the others. His inspiration from the study of counterpoint under Addler also was evident in this collection. Berg’s contribution to this performance’s repertoire was his Three Pieces for Orchestra, written in the mid 1910s. Berg utilizes extreme chromaticism and dissonance, and exhibits inspiration from past compositional practices from the Romantic era. The second piece features a waltz and a landler, fusing old and new practices. Berg uses unpitched percussion with unique intensity, and includes interesting approaches and instruments – such as a large wooden hammer and anvil – to contribute to the chaotic nature of his music, especially in the grand march that ends his collection. At many points in his pieces, other instrument groups have very percussive sounds, such as the fast and heavily articulated ricochets in the string section. As a group, these three composers are part of the “Second Viennese School” that is built around Schoenberg’s teachings and methods, especially his twelve tone and serialism teachings, and an extensive exploration of Klangfarbenmelodie, or tone colour melody. His teachings and compositions, as well as those of his students, exposed the music community to new methods and opportunities in compositional practice that would contribute to the reshaping of music and its role in society during the tumultuous and evolving 20th century.
The orchestra performed these pieces with unrivaled precision and balance that is expected from an ensemble of their caliber. Their understanding of the intent and artistic view of the composers was tangible, as each detail of these pieces was treated with obvious care and focus. The pointillism and tone colour melody were performed extremely effectively, and the wide dynamic and expressive range supported and interpreted the compositions beautifully. At times, the balance and blend of the ensemble made it hard to tell who was playing, and, to some extent at times, even which instruments were being used at the time. This was undoubtedly intentional and appropriate for the repertoire, and it was done very well. The musicians as a group used tension and release to effectively “tease” the audience and keep us on the edge of our seats until the last moments of the explosive march at the end of Berg’s piece. The orchestra’s ability to travel between barely audible and intensely loud contributed to the constant tug of war sensation of the performance. The trust between Rattle and his ensemble was also impressive, as he gave them anywhere from very little direction to very specific direction, and they responded with precision in both cases. It was obvious that the ensemble and conductor knew both what the composer wanted and what the musicians in performance were trying to achieve.
In conclusion, this was a level of classical performance that I had yet to previously experience in Toronto, and very well could be the greatest level of musicianship I will ever see live in an orchestral setting.