This Toronto Symphony Orchestra concert was a happening.
The audience clapped when the players appeared. And we clapped when Gustavo Gimeno came out for his first appearance as our New Music Director. The occasion was special for several reasons.
While we’ve seen him guest conduct this is different. He made a brief passionate speech about music and its power to communicate: and then defended his thesis in no uncertain terms.
I heard that the TSO are welcoming a thousand healthcare workers to concerts this week as a way of saying thank you for their heroics during the pandemic. Hear hear!
Everything about the concert seems new, partly because we’ve all been away.
The program notes are almost completely online now, saving a great deal of paper. I used to find it heart-breaking looking at the immense amounts of paper generated at the TSO as well as other venues around town. There’s just enough info in this program, as we know how many movements each piece has: except I was so lost in the experience that I applauded between movements, forgetting myself completely.
The gent sitting directly beside me happened to write the program notes, namely Michael Zarathus- Cook.
The protocol is new. The concert was roughly an hour long, that began 20 minutes late likely due to the bottleneck at the entrance as a big audience were required to show our vaccination documents. We had an hour without an intermission, likely because there is no way to accomplish social distancing in the Roy Thomson Hall washrooms (at least that’s my best guess). This surely hurts their revenue stream due to the loss of intermission sales. As I wondered whether this is just tonight or for longer, I saw on the TSO website the following statements about “resetting the stage”, and I quote:
• November through February concerts will be 60–75 minutes without intermissions, and include approximately 50 musicians on the stage.
• March through June Masterworks and Pops concerts will feature the entire ensemble in full-length programs with intermissions.
I also saw this factoid under :safety measures”
“Approximately 60% of available capacity will be offered for TSO performances in November at Roy Thomson Hall (roughly 1,550 seats out of 2,600).”
I wondered a couple of times: is it my imagination? The acoustic of the hall seems: different. The brass especially had extra pop. I wondered if that was because of the new onstage configuration of players. The concertmaster and principal cello used to stare eye to eye from the lip of the stage, but Joseph Johnson’s cello cohort are now alongside violins on the same side of the stage, with the double basses deep on that side as well. The brass were fully upstage close to the wall.
Perhaps the powerful acoustic is a function of the hall capacity, given that a full hall of people sucks the energy out of the music, while an empty one would have more energy.
It’s nice if the pandemic can offer us a bonus.
Oh wait, and then there’s the music. Our hour-long concert was a wonderful welcome back, both for the audience and the TSO, consisting of four works:
Anthony Barfield’s Invictus in its Canadian Premiere
Haydn’s Overture to L’Isola disabitata (The Desert Island)
Hindemith’s Concert Music for Strings and Brass Op 50
Schubert’s Symphony #5
Recalling the promise I mentioned to limit the players onstage to roughly 50, it’s a brilliant choice of works. Both Barfield’s and Hindemith’s boast a dozen brass players featured prominently, while the Haydn and Schubert conform to a typical chamber orchestra giving us a wonderful contrast between the different sorts of musical sounds & styles in our hour.
Those two brass-heavy works (Barfield & Hindemith) reminded me of the good old days of stereo, when we’d select a work especially to test a sound system. I’m glad the brass (mostly) got to rest in the other pieces. Indeed we need to remember that in a real sense Gustavo Gimeno is testing out the fit between himself, the orchestra and the hall, calibrating the way they respond to him, like a driver taking his car for a test drive, noticing how the engine responds when he accelerates, how it corners, how it feels when he puts on the brakes.
I wonder how his experience compared to what he heard in the audience?
Meanwhile, I’m intrigued by what I’ve heard from Gimeno so far, a series of impressive performances. No wonder the TSO like him. During the ovations he was very generous in sharing the spotlight with his orchestra. Tonight they played for us and played for him, but that’s no surprise considering the special occasion.
It’s early days, but I think I detect signs that Gimeno is a “romantic” in his approach. In the Schubert, there were clear distinctions as he’d consistently get a slightly slower tempo for the second subject in the exposition, the repeat of the exposition and again in the recapitulation, but much more brisk in the main orchestral tuttis. When there’s a dotted rhythm Gimeno demands crisp & clear articulation, and seems to want them to play a bit faster. This was also evident in the Schubert finale, taken faster than I’ve ever heard before. Gimeno has a strong sense of meter, not just in his accuracy but also in his interpretive ideas. I think I remember hearing somewhere that in a previous part of his career he was a percussionist, which might explain his clear beat, his consistent and solid grasp of meter. The fast passages in the Haydn and the Schubert put me in mind of practitioners observing historically informed performance, for the brisk tempi and the crisp approach to articulation. But the story of Gimeno’s art will unfold in the years to come.
It’s going to be wonderful to hear what Gimeno does this season, especially with big powerful pieces such as the Mendelssohn “Reformation” symphony and the Rachmaninoff 2nd Symphony. Not only do we have the adventure of discovering the quirks of a new artist who seems to have a strong set of ideas about the music, we also have the adventure of hearing the music in halls with reduced capacity, aka enhanced acoustics.
Roy Thomson Hall never sounded so good.
This program will repeat Thursday November 11 and Saturday November 13, each at 8:00 pm.
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