TSO Under Conductor Stasevska Offers Tchaikovsky In A Hurry

The TSO with visiting conductor Dalia Stasevska and pianist Sergei Babayan (Photos: Arthur Kaptainis); Photo of Dalia Stasevka courtesy of the TSO

Tarrodi: Paradisfåglar  II (Birds of Paradise II); Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1, Symphony No. 6 “Pathétique. Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Dalia Stasevska conducting; Sergei Babayan, piano. November 23, 2022, Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto. Tickets here.

Orchestral programming is a science. When the guests are newcomers — like conductor Dalia Stasevska and pianist Sergei Babayan — the Toronto Symphony Orchestra compensates with sure-selling Tchaikovsky. The formula drew a healthy crowd on Wednesday to Roy Thomson Hall, even if the results were not everything they might have been.

First, it should be stressed that the orchestra sounded at the top of its game in the Symphony No. 6 “Pathétique,” and that Stasevska was very much part of the sonic success. A compact and energetic figure armed with what looked like a long baton, this Ukrainian-born Finn beats time clearly, judges instrumental balances to perfection, and dictates a wide range of dynamic effects.

Both the bassoon at the beginning of the first movement and the clarinet near the end projected the requisite quiet melancholy. Strings were burnished, and fortissimo outbursts had focus. It was interesting to see the conductor drop her arms and remain motionless through much of the central section of the Allegro con grazia second movement. This world-weary music, with its steady timpani tread, needs no cajoling from the podium.

Other passages do need attention, and Stasevska sometimes seemed impatient with the pathos this score embodies like few others. Phrases were neatly groomed in the famous Adagio lamentoso finale, but the feeling was, paradoxically, of an enthusiastic rush toward a tragic conclusion. Stasevska is in her late thirties. She might look at the symphony differently in a decade or two.

There was applause after the martial third movement, a demonstration that enhances the irony of what follows. Clapping evolved slowly after the final fadeout. The orchestra declined to stand for one of the curtain calls, a gesture denoting exceptional approval of the conductor.

Before intermission, we heard the Piano Concerto No. 1, a work that normally relies on the bravura of the soloist for its success in performance. Babayan was at his most alluring in the Andantino semplice slow movement, with sympathetic support from Stasevska (who elsewhere was more competitive). The Armenian-American’s fondness for rubato was noteworthy also in the dreamy solo interludes of the first movement. As for the loud-and-fast stuff, it sounded slapdash, not to say peppered in the opening minutes with wrong notes. We have heard better renderings of this warhorse.

The program began with Paradisfåglar II (Birds of Paradise II) by Sweden’s Andrea Tarrodi, an eight-minute piece inspired by a BBC documentary on the exotic birds of the title. The evocatively symphonic opening led to an array of cheeps, toots, and tremolos. It was hard at times to connect the unusual sounds to the instruments that produced them. Stasevska knew the music thoroughly. The TSO responded like the virtuoso ensemble it is.

There are repeat performances Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

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