We’re still in the earliest days of Gustavo Gimeno’s tenure as music director of the Toronto Symphony, enjoying the pandemic protocol of smaller groups onstage playing for smaller groups in Roy Thomson Hall, in 60 minute concerts. That’s why we had a focus on the strings earlier this week, and tonight we got the rest of the orchestra, the spotlight on the winds, brass and percussion.
What an hour of contrast, variety, surprise.
Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, No. 1 by Joan Tower
Serenade in D Minor, Op. 44 by Antonín Dvořák
Music For Pieces of Wood by Steve Reich
Symphonies of Wind Instruments by Igor Stravinsky
Sinfonietta for Winds and Percussion by Oskar Morawetz
Considering that we were not hearing from the entire orchestra, there was still an astonishing variety.
Tower’s fanfare (one of five) is a thrilling little curtain raiser for our evening.
The Dvořák Serenade is a four movement masterpiece that (as mentioned in my previous review) drove me a bit nuts when I first heard some of it on radio, but couldn’t identify it until years later. Its opening sounds like a baroque overture, a pompous processional. The second movement minuet is a sunny delight more typically Slavic in its pastoral splendor, until we get to the unexpected rhythms of its trio. Then there’s a tranquil romance, and a quick finale.
Gimeno again hinted at romantic tendencies, quick off the mark in the finale but pulling back for the second subject, breath-takingly quick in the trio of the minuet. Some of the dynamics bely the usual expectations for this piece as “chamber music”, especially when Gimeno turned the brass loose for the big fanfare in the coda. While the dynamics were very gentle in the romance, they didn’t hold back when invited to make a bigger sound. So far the players are responding to his leadership.
The applause after that Serenade led to one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen from the TSO. Gimeno pulled something out that I thought might be a microphone. But no, he was holding pieces of wood, given that he was about to play. Ah yes, I had heard that Gimeno used to be a percussionist.
And he still is, it seems!
The version of the piece I checked out yesterday has all five of the players onstage, as you can see in this video.
Cool piece, right?
But Gimeno and the TSO added something a bit different, to make it a whole lot more dramatic.
As mentioned, Gimeno took centre stage while the ensemble we’d heard for the Dvorak took their instruments off the stage. I’m trying to recall, did he even wait for them to leave? I guess he probably did. But I was watching, fascinated.
Gimeno, alone at centre stage, began to play a steady beat.
After awhile a person strolled onto the stage from stage left, also carrying pieces of wood. And joined in.
Then another person walked onstage, this time from stage right, with his own pieces: and joined in.
Person four came from stage right, then a bit later, person five from stage left.
The piece is like a cleanse for the mind and the ear. While I find the Dvořák is a bit of an ear-worm in the best sense, passages resounding in my head for days after a hearing, this simple piece had me forgetting all that. All you hear is the clicks.
You may know the words “minimalism” and “minimalist”. Reich and his music have been identified by the epithets even if they’re not offered in any desire to be complimentary. The number of heads I saw bobbing, hands smacking legs, or feet tapping (guilty), might suggest we weren’t at a symphony concert. But of course we heard something that doesn’t resemble classical music in the usual sense. Not only might it change some minds of those who think of classical music as stodgy or square, I think they’d love it.
It was especially magical to watch Gimeno at the centre, not as conductor but as a participant. His role is a bit like a metronome, which come to think of it is a lot like what he does as a conductor, if we deconstruct his role into the simplest essence of what conductors must do in keeping a steady beat. His metre is solid. It was exciting to see him playing among other players, and later watching him cue them in other compositions.
He is no hoary maestro.
We had gone from brief fanfare to delicious wind serenade, to pieces of wood, and now, even though Gimeno didn’t emulate John Cleese by saying “And now for something completely different”, he certainly enacted the contrast for us, as we next went to Stravinsky.
I’m a bit hypnotized by this work, that sometimes brays loudly, sometimes squawks sweetly. At the risk of pronouncing heresy, I love that over its roughly eight or nine minutes, nothing happens.
I listened to the usual version of the piece then found a piano transcription. I find them fascinating both for the way they help you get insights about a piece of music, and for the way you literally get inside the piece, enjoying it at the keyboard. The piano version highlights the rhythms and harmonies of the composition even as it removes all the orchestral colours.
If you listen to it you can see what I mean.
The featureless sound of the piano (the absence of the variety you get with orchestral timbres) suggests something I’m tempted to identify as minimalist. We won’t have symphonic development or strict form to impose meaning, but rather a peaceful stasis in this curious soundscape. While it has none of the usual assonant tonality of a minimalist composer, it reminds me of a slightly dissonant Slavic-flavored version of something Debussy might have written, a bit like Nuages only without any pressure to be beautiful or to give us changes; perhaps I make the connection due to Stravinsky’s dedication to the French composer, who died two years before the piece was written in its original form. Debussy of course wanted beauty above all, where Stravinsky lets things be just as they are. I admire this piece, enjoying its refusal to do what others would do. Of course the colours have been removed at the piano, so when you reconstitute it with orchestral colours it’s especially stunning.
And for the final work we were again in the presence of the Slavic sensibility, via Oskar Morawetz’s Sinfonietta. I was sad that I couldn’t find him on Youtube, a testimony perhaps to shifting fashion rather than any weakness in his music. We’re hearing some of the same modernist tendencies of Hindemith in the bold use of orchestral colour, sometimes suggesting mystery or satire, although Morawetz is an original. This is a music unafraid to take the stage, theatrical or perhaps cinematic, full of energy. Where the subtleties of the Stravinsky drew a polite response, Morawetz inspired a big ovation.
I’d like to hear more.
The concert repeats Saturday November 20th.