TSO off to a roaring start with Life of Pi

Peter Oundjian
Toronto Star

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra opened a new season of concerts at Roy Thomson Hall on Tuesday night at the top of its game, making for a particularly satisfying evening of music. But that was only the beginning of the treats in store.

The biggest treat for me and, judging from the prolonged standing ovation for composer Mychael Danna, many others was the world premiere of his adaptation of his movie soundtrack from the Life of Pi for symphony orchestra.

The tidy, 20-minute piece was impeccably performed by the TSO and a quartet of special guests, including Indian vocalist Bombay Jayashri, kanjeera (drum) master V. Selvaganesh (both of whom were recorded on the original Life of Pi soundtrack), and Toronto accordionist Joe Macerollo. The music captured the full narrative and emotional scope of Ang Lee’s masterful adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel. Best of all, it was a gorgeous showcase of how Toronto’s cultural richness can be seamlessly integrated into a traditional European-born art form.

It has long been a dream for many people here that mixing cultures across genres of classical music not feel like a marketing exercise, or like a patchwork awkwardly stitched together in the spirit of sharing, or like wanton cultural appropriation. Dana’s music from Life of Pi feels like the start of something new and authentic, and can be used as a model by others looking to find a future for art music that reflects a city where the entire world can be made to feel at home.

And what a shining example this is to people who might not feel generous to cultures not their own.

But symphony concerts are not meant to be lessons in broad-mindedness and inclusion. They are meant to make us feel good, to leave the concert hall cheered, uplifted, stimulated and entertained.

The TSO’s opening program worked beautifully on all counts, starting with the Toronto premiere of “Élan” by Nova Scotia-based composer and flute player Derek Charke. The propulsive little fanfare was part of a national series of co-commissions by the TSO in honour of Canada’s 150th, and fit the bill neatly.

The evening ended on an even more powerfully upbeat note, with Igor Stravinsky’s shortened 1919 Suite from The Firebird, the first truly modern ballet score. Music director Peter Oundjian was able to craft a nuanced performance that showed off his orchestra’s subtle skills in playing softly alongside powerful, percussive contrasts.
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