TSO & Gimeno: a question of leadership

Tonight was the first concert in the Toronto Symphony’s last weekend of the season, giving us a glimpse of their new music director Gustavo Gimeno. Will he come to be known as GG? While last week’s concert with Donald Runnicles suggested a proposition, tonight was QED with GG. My hypothesis: that the TSO were in need of leadership, hungry for it, starving;  the proof can be seen in their enthusiastic and committed playing, especially with GG.


Incoming Toronto Symphony Music Director Gustavo Gimeno

Forgive me, this is one of those nights screaming for a preamble, for context above & beyond the concert: which was amazing by the way. Hurry and get your tickets before they’re all gone. The pieces are great but the performances were exceptional, the chemistry unmistakable.

I keep hearing people in Toronto musing about the magic of team leaders, that je ne sais quoi that propels a Kawhi Leonard or a Nick Nurse to victory: taking the team along with them. It’s at least a bit of a chicken & egg thing, though, when you consider that the one person can’t do it alone, that you have to assemble the key parts of the team before the special individual leads them to the promised land.

I want to properly recognize where the TSO have been and where GG puts them. Under their last long-term music director Peter Oundjian they were sometimes a remarkable collection of talented players including some brilliant young section leaders, building towards a wonderful future. You might well ask, when is the future?

I relate at a deep level to the conundrum, where we found Oundjian especially good leading the orchestra in concerti –accompanying a soloist—yet lacking some essential vision when playing big works. And in the meantime those young talents were nurtured by Oundjian the mentor, a man of wonderful kindness and generosity but perhaps not enough of an egomaniac, or whatever it is that a conductor requires, to put them over the top.

What is a leader after all? Do we know them by what they do, or by the results of those who are being led? We see this over and over, that the skills of a star player –whether in hockey or basketball OR opera or symphonic music or theatre—don’t necessarily translate into the skills to lead. They’re not the same skills are they? The assumption that a good actor makes a good director, or that a good stick handler or goal-scorer makes a good coach has been shown to be wrong over and over, because of course the skills of a leader are totally different than those of a star. The baton handling is the least of it. We watch Mayor Pete or Kamala Harris or Donald Trump tell us what they believe, and for some reason some people are moved by person X more than they’re moved by person Y, let alone what they manage to achieve if/when they’re put in charge. But I’ll leave off about leadership for the time being, although I suspect I’ll come back to it again in the next little while, because it’s such an important question.

So my first observation is simply that the TSO were hungry for what GG has got and what he gives them. They played really well tonight. The response of the members of the orchestra is a symptom, like children bouncing out of bed early on Christmas morning, or a cat running towards the sound of the can-opener. I believe they were primed and ready, given that they were brilliant last week with Runnicles.

What does GG do to get that response? I can only go by the de facto evidence, both of the performances and in Jonathan Crow’s comments in the post-concert interview, when he confirmed the rapturous response of the TSO, a curious sort of chemistry.


(l-r) Concertmaster & soloist Jonathan Crow, TSO’s CEO Matthew Loden and conductor Gustavo Gimeno

Tonight we heard three works:

  • Sibelius’ violin concerto, with Crow as soloist
  • Prokofiev’s symphony #1
  • Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite

As a former percussionist GG brings a steady hand to the tiller. I’m not suggesting he’s metronomic. But there is the matter of meter, a word I haven’t heard anyone speak of in awhile. Let me illustrate with reference to tonight’s concert.

Do you ever wonder how a band or a soloist avoids speeding up or slowing down? It’s a dreadful thing if you notice a change, unless it’s a deliberate effect such as you might get at the breathless ending to a Rossini Overture. While one mustn’t seem like a machine one wants an organic steadiness, a natural flow. GG gave me a new perspective on that Prokofiev symphony tonight, one I’ve heard many times but never quite like this. The first & last movements are sometimes taken so fast as to seem rushed, as though we’re watching a circus performance, virtuoso excellence balancing on the edge. What I found especially breath-taking about these four movements tonight was how everything seemed easy, relaxed, unhurried. The inner voices were not just clear, but seemed to be part of a conversation, as though the parts were answering one another, as though the players were not just playing their parts but listening to one another. The result was lusciously beautiful like a voluptuous salad, where every part enticed you. The Larghetto was slower than I’ve ever heard it, exquisitely articulated throughout. GG’s approach to the gavotte was especially interesting, as he played with the tempo, the phrases feeling like thoughtful gestures back and forth. If I didn’t know better I’d say that this is an orchestra who are feeling a great deal of trust, for their new leader & for one another, given the transparent textures & the precise entrances. There was no sign of any fear or indecision in the playing, reflecting their confidence in their leader & his tempi. For the Firebird, it’s the same quality but on a larger scale. I found that at times GG employed a slower tempo than what I’d previously encountered, in other places, faster: but in every respect, it hung together, collegial & alive. I don’t think it matters sometimes what vision the leader has, so long as they’re decisive and specific. The orchestra followed and for now at least it’s a love-fest, one you can likely see at all the concerts coming up this weekend at Roy Thomson Hall Saturday night & Sunday afternoon.

Before intermission we heard a different sort of work, namely Sibelius’ violin concerto with concertmaster Jonathan Crow as soloist.

RESIZED TSO June 28 Photo Credit Jag Gundu

Violinist Jonathan Crow with the TSO led by Gustavo Gimeno (photo: Jag Gundu)

As orchestra & conductor get to know one another –given that we’d expect this to be the beginning of a long-term relationship—it’s a great idea to have the orchestra’s resident virtuoso play a concerto, as a kind of act of calibration. They’re getting the feel of one another, right? So there they were out on the dance-floor together, getting comfortable with one another.  They reported in their post-concert Q & A that they’re speaking the same language.

Speaking of which I couldn’t help wondering: how many languages does a cosmopolitan artist like Gimeno speak? In the Q & A he spoke articulately in accented English, but I’m sure he also speaks Dutch (he had a position in Holland), Spanish, perhaps also German & French & Italian?

We have to wait awhile for the GG era to begin, not until in the fall of 2020. Our appetites have been whetted.  Argh I can’t wait.

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1 Response to TSO & Gimeno: a question of leadership

  1. GG’s daughter is at school in Amsterdam so Dutch seems a safe bet. Also his other position is in Luxembourg so I’m sure he speaks German.

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