TSO String showcase and what’s to come

In this the second week of Gustavo Gimeno’s tenure as music director of the Toronto Symphony, we’re already seeing some exciting programming choices.

Incoming Toronto Symphony Music Director Gustavo Gimeno

Someone thought to limit the number of players onstage to around 50 as a safety measure, affording them the pretense to get creative. Tonight and tomorrow the works employ the strings, while Friday and Saturday the spotlight shifts to the winds, brass and percussion. They’re also reducing numbers in the audience (safety again), offering as a byproduct, the improvement to Roy Thomson Hall’s acoustics.

Or in other words, they sound tremendous.

Gimeno’s choices of music also seem a good match for a changing audience, accepting of experimentation and eager to explore new repertoire:

Composer Caroline Shaw

The repertoire offered tonight and tomorrow:
Boris Kerner by Caroline Shaw
“A Letter from the After-life” from Two Pop Songs on Antique Poems by Dinuk Wijeratne
Rains of Ash and Embers by Kelly-Marie Murphy
Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5
Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) from Arnold Schoenberg.

Arnold Schoenberg

As I peek at upcoming programs I wonder if this will be the new normal. We shall see!

Shaw’s piece acted as curtain-raiser, Joseph Johnson’s solo cello joined by Charles Settle playing a series of flower pots selected perhaps for their pitch and their resonance, the two blending wonderfully with the cello line that began a bit like a solo Bach composition.

We segued without pause (or without sufficient audience response when the piece was over) into “A Letter from the After-life”. Murphy’s bittersweet piece followed, the third consecutive piece to be heard that was composed in the 21st century: and it’s not even February. The applause was enthusiastic, although relatively tame compared to the response to the two 20th century works.

How we listen has changed radically. At one time it might have been unthinkable to program a single movement from a Mahler Symphony, particularly one with a reputation as one of his greatest hits, as we might say of the Adagietto from the 5th. The safety requirements push us to listen to new combinations of repertoire from different groups of instruments onstage. I wonder if this will persist after the pandemic is over? Nowadays we listen to single movements on our devices, on the radio, mixing idioms promiscuously, pragmatically.

Playing through the single movement followed by Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, encouraged us to notice their affinity. I’m looking forward to hearing Gimeno survey symphony literature, enjoying his tendencies. Gimeno’s rapport with his orchestra is manifest, even at this early date. Maybe it’s the acoustics, but I hear a delicacy of sound in genuine pianissimos, a real sustained softness of texture, musicians listening to one another.

I also want to mention that they fixed the one problem from last week, namely the bottleneck of personnel checking our vaccination credentials at the door. We started more or less on time.

Coming up in the concerts Friday & Saturday, I’m eager to hear Dvorák‘s brilliant Serenade for Winds. I remember being puzzled and driven a bit crazy when I heard a small excerpt on the radio, but missed hearing who wrote it. Oh no! Unable to identify its unique & original idiom, I had it in my head for years until I stumbled upon a performance conducted by the late Kerry Stratton who also programmed it on CFMZ. And this wonderful piece that we wouldn’t usually expect to hear from the TSO is only one part of the upcoming concert, that also includes works by Joan Tower, Oskar Morawetz, Igor Stravinsky and Steve Reich.

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