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Begins with the Oboe: A History of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra

by Richard S. Warren
287 pages,
ISBN: 0802035884

E. J. Hughes

by Ian M. Thom
226 pages,
ISBN: 1550548999


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by Olga Stein

Music/Culture

Music aficionados or those who cherish the experience of a night on the town which includes the pleasures of listening to a first-rate symphony orchestra, couldn't but welcome this book on the near-eighty-year-history of one of the finest orchestras in North America, a cornerstone in the cultural life of Toronto, one of Canada's brightest cities. The book relates the orchestra's humble beginnings¨albeit from anything but humble aspirations¨with rehearsals initially taking place in the home of it's first music director and conductor, Luigi von Kunits, in the fall of 1922, and then in the basement Massey Hall. The first concert was given in Massey Hall on April 23, 1923 under the name New Symphony Orchestra. That momentous performance is described:

The principal oboe played an A and the orchestra tuned. Then Dr von Kunits stepped onto the podium, raised his baton, gave the downbeat, and they were away into the Overture to Der Freschutz by Carl Maria von Weber. The remainder of the program consisted of a Slavonic Dance by Antonfn Dvor▀k, two Hungarian Dances by Johannes Brahms, and the Symphony No.5 in E minor by Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky.

In similar vein, Begins with the Oboe informs the reader about the programmes of every major concert given by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at home and abroad (the compositions and composers, the guest conductors and solo artists) from that first season up until February, 2001. The late Richard S. Warren, archivist for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for twenty-six years, was truly engaged in a labour of love, for the book contains an abundance of detail for which a music historian or serious enthusiast is bound to be grateful. In addition, there are marvelous photos of world-renowned artists like Maureen Forrester and Jessye Norman, Jacqueline du PrT, Isaac Stern, Yo-Yo Ma, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Yehudi Menuhin¨but a few of the stellar performers who have appeared with the TSO over the years.

A performance may begin with the orchestra's tuning of instruments to the Oboe's A, but where each performance really begins is with the conductor, who is also the orchestra's music director. It is the conductor who plans the programme, and who determines the character of a concert through the selection and interpretation of music. Furthermore, a conductor will mark the entire period of his tenure with his own musical sensibility. Fittingly, the chapters in the book are dedicated to the TSO's nine conductors¨Luigi von Kunits (1922-31), Sir Ernest MacMillan (1931-56), Walter Susskind (1956-65), Seiji Ozawa (1965-69), Karel Ancerl (1969-73), Victor Feldbrill (1973-75), Andrew Davis (1975-87), Gnnther Herbig (1988-94), and Jukka-Pekka Saraste (1994-2000). Every one of the nine represents a distinct period in the symphony's history.

It's hardly possible to say something meaningful about each conductor with a line or two of information. Perhaps this is why Richard Warren's detailed accounts are of such value. It is Warren who gives us a sense of each conductor's taste, his inclination toward particular composers, types of music or music periods, and ultimately, of his unique 'personality' as artistic director. Thanks to Warren's painstaking efforts, it could be said that all nine were remarkably-accomplished, knowledgeable musicians, and each brought his own brand of musical sophistication and refinement to the post.

Begins with the Oboe is a full history of the TSO's activities, its tours and performances outside of Canada, which have earned it a reputation for being a world-class orchestra, and more importantly, its manifold contributions to cultural life in Toronto, such as summer concerts at Ontario Place and concerts designed for school-age children. Warren also writes unflinchingly about the financial difficulties it has encountered over the years, the squabbles between musicians and management, and the growing gap between government subsidies and operating costs. But mostly, this book is a tribute to a precious part of cultural life in Toronto and to the folks¨from the women's committees, the board members, the managers, and musicians¨who gave their years to the cause of keeping alive a symphony orchestra in Toronto. And what a tribute this is!

Art/Biography

This book, with its 100 full colour reproductions, rightly celebrates the long career of a marvelous BC artist with whose work I've only recently become familiar. A graduate of the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts, where Hughes studied with the likes of Frederick Varley, a member of the Group of Seven, Hughes began his brilliant and varied career as a printmaker, muralist, and official war artist. Drypoints, such as "Harbour Princess" (1935), "Trees, Savary Island" (1935), and the drawing "Rivers Inlet" (1938), which represent the start of his professional life, displayed his immense talent for composition and showed him to be a "draughtsman without peer in Canada." As a war artist in the early 40s, Hughes painted a number of superb realistic canvasses depicting soldiers engaged in military activities, but I find most appealing his "Canteen Queue, Kiska", "Patrol Dismissing in Camp" (1945), and his "Early Morning PT Training" (1945). These are stylized paintings, influenced by the French primitive artist Henri Rousseau. The use of pattern in composition, the dramatic shifts in light and dark colour, the simplified shapes, creating a sense of continuity between the foreground and backround, and sculptural quality of the individual men and as a group, unified into a geomentric shape, amount to art that is visually intense and breath-taking. Hughes carried over this style into his post-war art, producing his dramatic "Fishboats, Rivers Inlet" (1946), mysterious "Indian Church, North Vancouver" (1947) and "Abandoned Village, Rivers Inlet" (1947), the charming "Qualicum Beach" (1948) and many more paintings incorporating the "nanve" element, as well as the qualities he came to know and admire years earlier in the work of Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros.

In 1947, with the recommendation of Lawren Harris, Hughes was awarded the Emily Carr Scholarship, and in 1948, with the nomination of A.Y. Jackson and George Pepper, he became a member of the Canadian Group of Painters.

Throughout the 50s Hughes produced numerous canvasses depicting B.C. harbor life, island and river scenes with tugboats, ferries and steamers¨all in his distinct style, or perhaps more accurately, styles, for there is a varied degree of realism and primitivism (compare "Trees, Savary Island" [1953], with "Mouth of the Courtenay River"[1952] or "Qualicum" [1958]) and mix thereof. Output in 1960s appears stylistically more uniform. Colour-wise, the paintings¨seascapes, many containing coastal boats¨appear more somber, with lighter, more vivid colours used as inflections to offset large areas covered with darker values. By comparison the paintings of the 70s and 80s are lighter, with a greater tendency to realism. But whatever the mood or view, the B.C. landscape continues to be magnificent and Hughes's oeuvre, an integral part of West Coast art, must be experienced.

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