Tonight’s Toronto Symphony concert reminded me of someone I haven’t thought of in ages, a piano teacher in my teen years. At every lesson we’d begin with small-talk, and then he’d say “now play for me!” It was a wonderfully intimate invitation, making the music-making into a kind of communication, and very personal. It made me feel that he wanted to see what I was doing and that what I was bringing to him each week was a kind of gift, making me feel special (even when I wasn’t thrilled with how a piece was going).
He inspired me.
I was reminded of that magical chemistry as I watched the TSO playing at Roy Thomson Hall tonight, a huge difficult program that they’re repeating Thursday & Saturday:
- Connesson’s Aleph: Danse symphonique (a TSO co-commission)
- Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto with Beatrice Rana, soloist
- Tchaikovsky’s The Tempest Fantasy-Overture
- Ravel’s Suite #2 from Daphnis et Chloé
Did I say it was a huge difficult program? I loved three of the four pieces, although all of them were challenging. Yet the orchestra played like a bunch of kids wanting to impress their new best friend: Gustavo Gimeno. It doesn’t hurt that he knows how to lead them, with a solid beat, a sense of meter and clear interpretive ideas.
The piece that I didn’t love? It’s not the orchestra’s fault. Tchaikovsky’s Tempest piece is about 5 minutes too long, a series of lovely episodes and one too many climaxes. It ends with a stunning elegiac passage that reminds me of the ending of the Manfred Symphony¸ although it would be hard to find two dramatic works more different than Byron’s Manfred and Shakespeare’s Tempest.
I suppose the word “kitsch” is in my mind after Wilson’s take-down and deconstruction of Puccini at the COC, although what impressed me was how Gimeno got commitment from his players. A conductor can’t have his players only making an effort when they’re playing a brilliant high-quality score, oh no; they need to play even when it’s schlock. No the quality of the piece didn’t stop anyone from putting their heart boldly & lovingly on their sleeve, and that’s what a conductor wants ultimately. There were stunning moments when you saw the beginnings of a beautiful relationship. The cellos en masse emoting a big romantic melody, the trombones & tuba in a perfect choir, the horns (!) both at the beginning & ending making magic..? THAT is why I thought of my piano teacher, watching the eye contact as Gimeno seemed to invite his players (the orchestra he is about to lead after all): to play for him.
And they did so.
The other three works are the reason you should try to get to this concert.
I reviewed Rana’s debut CD of Chopin & Scriabin back in 2012, a masterful display of technique coupled with a very mature sensibility. She has wonderful taste, as she showed us tonight. The Prokofiev is an invitation to bring out different facets of her playing in the varieties of sound she gave us. We started with soft relaxed noodling that led to moments of big angular octave passages, easily penetrating the thick orchestral textures. Whether it’s more Gimeno or Rana, we always heard the solos clearly, sometimes floating on the orchestral waves, sometimes sparkling in their firmament. This is the most impressive display of piano playing I’ve seen in awhile.
Because we screamed so enthusiastically for her, Rana honoured us by playing the 5th Chopin etude in E minor as an encore, a stunning jewel.
The TSO concluded with the Ravel, Gimeno illustrating a maxim that’s deceptively simple. To make a good crescendo you have to make sure you start softly. This might be the softest beginning to this piece that I’ve ever heard: making the inexorable build-up that follows so much more powerful, so much more beautiful. Much of the piece was kept in check, so that when a big loud brass passage spears out of the surrounding texture, it’s that much more effective if it’s in the midst of mezzo-piano or mezzo-forte, rather than an orchestra already blaring away at forte. Not only does this spare the audience –who maybe shouldn’t hear everything blared—but it also conserves the chops of the players. It was an especially busy night for the brass: and they were excellent.
To open, we heard something more than a mere curtain raiser. Gimeno explained in a post-concert talk-back, that the piece, titled “Aleph”, which is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, is an apt symbol of the beginning of Gimeno’s relationship with the TSO.
The piece was more than that however. I only wish I could catch the concert again later in the week, as I suspect it will get better. New music is always a challenge, not just to learn how to play, but also in the more fundamental sense of discovering what it’s really doing, knowing how to listen. The first time you play a piece you’ve heard others play is a different level of difficulty from making sense of a brand-new composition. Connesson’s work is fascinating composition that I want to hear again. It features a lot of odd bar-lengths, the meter elusive to perceive, and likely a stiff challenge to the players AND Gimeno. His background as a percussionist seems to be exactly what the doctor ordered, as the orchestra seems ready & willing to follow his lead. At times this piece reminded me of Frank Zappa especially in the long & daunting passages for unison percussion, executed brilliantly I might add.
The concert will be repeated Thursday & Saturday, Oct 10 & 12.