La Scena Musicale

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Music with a Moral: Weill’s 7 Deadly Sins Timely Programming by TSO

Review by Paul E. Robinson

I remember well the opening of Roy Thomson Hall (RTH) in Toronto in 1982. At last the Toronto Symphony (TSO) would have a fine modern hall to replace the legendary, but aging Massey Hall. How disappointed I was to see and hear a facility that seemed to be designed by fools - and we were stuck with it.

I conducted at RTH myself on several occasions – including the Canadian premiere of the Sibelius Kullervo Symphony in 1986 – and the experience only served to confirm the impressions I had formed as a member of the audience; the sound had no presence, no bass response and the high end was extremely hard-edged.

Some tinkering was done with the hall’s acoustics over the years, but not until 2002 did the hall’s owners face reality and close the hall for six months to make major changes. Just last week I returned for the first time since the makeover – officially called the “Roy Thomson Hall Enhancement Project” – to hear for myself whether the project had been successful. I came away with mixed impressions.

The TSO concert I heard featured Ute Lemper in the Kurt Weill-Bertold Brecht stage piece The Seven Deadly Sins. The program also included the Symphony No.11 (The Year 1905) by Shostakovich. The concert was repeated a few nights later at Carnegie Hall in New York. Maestro Peter Oundjian and the TSO deserve full credit for putting together a demanding and slightly offbeat programme to showcase themselves in New York. It wasn’t the original programme. The Weill was a late substitute for Benjamin Yusupov’s Viola Tango Rock Concerto featuring Maxim Vengerov - also an imaginative choice.

Ute Lemper, the Hudson Shad Vocal Quartet, & 7 Deadly Sins

The Seven Deadly Sins is a hybrid, a ‘sung ballet’ for female vocalist, male vocal quartet and orchestra. The piece draws on themes already used by Weill and Brecht in other works such as Mahagonny and The Threepenny Opera. It is an indictment of capitalism from a Marxist point of view. It made a lot of sense to many people as the Depression began to bite in 1933 and in view of recent global economic problems, it remains relevant today. Greed, unfortunately, is a driving force in our society and it ultimately forces millions into misery, as it always has. Marxism is out of fashion thanks to the horrors of Stalinism and Maoism, but the criticism of unbridled capitalism remains as powerful as ever.

Ute Lemper is justly famous for her idiomatic performances of the music of Kurt Weill and she was in fine form in The Seven Deadly Sins. The men of the Hudson Shad Vocal Quartet were also first-rate and with their demeanour and carefully chosen gestures added to the theatrical effect. I wonder, however, if this piece doesn’t lose its edge in a concert version. In concert, the vulgarity and degradation described in the text become rather abstract. While Oundjian and the TSO gave us wonderful playing, they reinforced the ‘concert’ aspect of the piece instead of the ‘down and dirty’ that can be portrayed in the ballet version.

Shostakovich Symphony Sound & Fury Signifying Little
Shostakovich was not shy about tackling big themes. In his Eleventh Symphony of 1957, he set out to describe some of the key events of the Russian Revolution of 1905 - not to be confused with the Communist Revolution of 1917. Shostakovich (b. 1906) was not yet born, but he lived through the effects of not only the 1917 Revolution, but two World Wars and the dark years of Stalin’s tyrannical rule. At times one feels that the music in this symphony could have been more effectively used in a film. Like most ‘programme music,’ with no story or pictures attached, it often falls into sound and fury signifying very little.

There is much that is profoundly expressive in the Shostakovich Eleventh Symphony, and some of the climactic moments are tremendously exciting, but there are also pages of repetitive note-spinning and the high volume levels can become tiresome. For me the piece does not hang together as a musical structure and too much of it is hardly more than routine.

That said, Peter Oundjian had a firm grasp of the piece and maintained intensity from the first note to the last, without unnecessary histrionics. This was fine conducting, matched by superb playing from the orchestra.

I have greatly admired principal trumpet Andrew McCandless from his days in Dallas, and on this night he was at the very top of his game. So too was the always splendid timpanist, David Kent. The Shostakovich Eleventh Symphony is notable as one of the few orchestral works to give such prominence to the snare drum and John Rudolf played his part with appropriate virtuosity. Kudos also to the evening’s guest concertmaster, Jonathan Carney. The TSO is currently trying out various applicants for their vacant concertmaster position and Carney showed he can lead with style and passion. While Carney’s name was posted in the lobby for this concert, there was not a word about who he was or where he came from. For the record, he is an American currently serving as concertmaster of the Baltimore Symphony and before that he was concertmaster of the Royal Philharmonic in London for twelve years.

In Spite of Renovations Roy Thomson Hall an Acoustical “Turkey”
There were so many problems with the original design of RTH that it must have been a challenge to know where to begin with the makeover.
  • It had too many seats - more than 2800 when the ideal for an orchestra is about 2000: the economics of the business being what they are, the makeover reduced the seating to 2630.
  • It was too large a space: the renovation reduced the volume by 13.5% making RTH comparable to places like Carnegie Hall.
  • It was the wrong shape - the best concert halls in the world are shaped like a shoebox, and RTH was more like an old-fashioned oval opera house: not much could be done about this problem, although the volume reduction done in 2002 somewhat altered the basic shape.
  • There was too much carpeting in the auditorium soaking up the sound: the carpet was eliminated and replaced by hardwood flooring.
  • The annoying continental seating – that is, there were no aisles except on the sides: this was scrapped and the ground floor was reconfigured to make the seating more user-friendly.

In embarking on the 2002 renovation, its owners finally admitted that the RTH acoustics were inferior and engaged one of the best acousticians in the business, the late Russell Johnson, to fix them. Had Johnson been hired at the building design stage, many of the problems would have been avoided. Unfortunately, coming to the job 'after the fact', he was impossibly handicapped by having to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

The renovation had to be done and was clearly long overdue, but RTH remains a colossal mistake. The owners of the hall embarked on the original building project without knowing what they were doing and stuck the orchestra and the city with an architectural and acoustical turkey. RTH literature (“The enhancement project altered the hall, while at the same time honoured and revalued Arthur Erickson’s original design.”) suggests they are still oblivious to the damage they have done.

The 2002 renovations certainly improved RTH, but it is still far from a great concert hall. The sound has much more presence than it did and the upper strings don’t sound computer generated, but they don’t have much body or warmth either. The lower strings sound as bland and undernourished as ever.

If Roy Thomson Hall remains a disappointment, it has at least become a tolerable place in which to hear and to make music; as such, it is far more successful than Salle Wilfred-Pelletier at Place des Arts in Montreal.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at For more about Paul E. Robinson please visit his website at

Photos by Marita

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