SCRUTINY | Toronto Summer Music Festival’s In-Person Opening Concert Is A Cause For Celebration
It’s been a long time coming.
For nearly a year and a half, COVID-19 has robbed us music lovers of something very precious: attending live performances. The last one I went to was the Canadian premiere of Jonathan Dove’s Mansfield Park, staged by the University of Toronto Opera, way back in March 2020. Between that and today’s performance was a long hiatus of 16 months and 14 days. In the interim, I have been drawing musical sustenance from online streaming. But I’ll be honest—it’s just not the same. We attend concerts for the wonderful music, but also for the communal experience, where fellow music lovers gather to cheer the performers on, and to share in what we love. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, when violinist Jonathan Crow played the opening melody of the sublime Beethoven “Spring” Sonata, I felt a lump in my throat, an unexpected emotional response. It was the realization that the in-person concert experience is back!
But, I am getting ahead of myself. Monday, July 26 marks the first day of a week of in-person performances by the Toronto Summer Music Festival at the beautiful Grace Church on-the-Hill, all with social distancing and government-stipulated health precautions. The performances are approximately one hour each, without an intermission. It’s a cautious beginning, but hopefully signalling a semblance of normalcy going forward. Today’s concert was the first of a series featuring Beethoven Sonatas, played by TSMF Artistic Director/TSO Concertmaster Jonathan Crow, joined by pianist Philip Chiu, who incidentally did double duty with a recital in the evening.
Jonathan Crow kicked off the proceedings with a brief but informative introduction to the program. He pointed out
the stylistic evolution of the Beethoven compositions as having progressed from the more formal styles of Mozart and Haydn. That said, the Sonata No. 1 in D Major, Op. 12, being an early work, still hearkens back a great deal to the earlier Classical period. Crow and Chiu played with exemplary precision and spirit, certainly living up to the designated “Allegro con brio” First Movement, a felicitous mix of discipline and exuberance. Bravi for a truly fine opening.
This was followed by When the Violin, a short composition by South Asian/American composer Reena Esmail. Her soundscape reveals an interesting mix of what is conventionally Western sonorities, with what’s to my ears a rather sinuous, slithering of pitches that are decidedly non-Western. One would not have thought the two would go together, but Esmail manages a harmonious mix that is pleasing to the ear. That said, I would need repeated hearing to fully appreciate it, which happily I can do since the online performance last week is archived.
This was immediately followed by what to me was the centrepiece of the concert, Beethoven’s sublime Sonata No. 5, in F Major, Op. 24 “Spring”. While I am game for something new like Ms. Esmail’s creation, I am not embarrassed to admit that the familiar strains of the gorgeous opening phrases of the Beethoven is like being washed over by a healing balm. Like one’s favourite pair or shoes or comfort food, I never get tired of it, especially when it’s so beautifully performed. Given that “Spring” signals a new beginning—never mind we are now closer to the dog days of summer—let’s hope the world turns over a new, COVID-free leaf. It was to my ears the highlight of the one-hour concert.