Gimeno, Schumann’s Spring, Pal’s Scylla at the TSO

What an unusual night for the Toronto Symphony.

It’s 11:20 pm as I begin to write this, recalling the headline on CP24 (a picture I snapped at 4:33 pm) about Toronto’s downtown, that says “BREAKING: Traffic is gridlocked in much of downtown because of protesters and road closures.”

As of 11:24 CP 24 said the protesters were dispersed, thank goodness. Not only is Roy Thomson Hall’s capacity limited to 500 by current COVID restrictions even though there are over 2600 seats but I suspect some were also daunted by the traffic. I took the GO train.

It’s too bad that there were so few in attendance. In a night of Beethoven, Schumann and a recent work from Jordan Pal, it was the new piece that felt most relevant for a city in turmoil.

Composer Jordan Pal

Pal’s composition is called Scylla, drawing upon the mythology of the Odyssey, as he tells us in his program note:

“In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus was forced to choose between Scylla and Charybdis – between two equally dangerous situations. ‘Scylla for Trombone and Orchestra’ is my climate odyssey, embodying the choice we as a species face: climate catastrophe or a sustainable future; inaction or proaction; disbelief or faith. ‘Scylla’ journeys from the future – an inhospitable world, the result of centuries of human neglect – to present-day crossroads where mankind must make climate change its priority.”

The young composer’s three movement concerto was the centre-piece of a night when we were already jarred by the activism of protesters elsewhere in the city, Pal’s ambition wonderful to behold. I’ve been inspired especially by the composers who dare to propose that music can change the world by changing the hearts of humanity, a John Lennon or a Bob Dylan.

TSO Principal trombone Gordon Wolfe

Pal’s concerto, played by TSO Principal Trombone Gordon Wolfe, puts me in mind of other romantic works that resemble concerti. Like Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, Pal’s trombonist could be a character in a drama, a personage walking onstage partway through the first movement, exiting, then situating himself in a balcony at the rear above the orchestra for a lyrical second movement. At times the trombone seems to be fighting against the forces arrayed against it. In the third movement, I was inspired by the shift in tone, as though the soloist could actually have agency and be heroic, offering cause for hope.

Pal’s music reminded me a bit of John Williams (who’s on my mind admittedly because I’ve been listening to a lot of his music & watching his films lately), especially the bold music when the humans fight the shark in Jaws, and the battle sequences from Star Wars. While I’m sure I don’t always get what Pal is signifying, or what his music is doing, that’s only reasonable with such a complex and ambitious work. I didn’t get Berlioz or Strauss’s tone poems right away either, as I must listen to the piece again.

I don’t know enough about the trombone to have a sense of how difficult the piece is as far as its challenges to trombonist Wolfe, except that he seems undaunted, confident and committed throughout. There are places where he is soft and serene sounding, other places where he is as agile as an Olympic slalom skier, negotiating ferocious hazards without a slip-up.

On either end of the program, music director Gustavo Gimeno led the TSO in something more conventional. We began with Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus overture, and ended with Schumann’s 1st Symphony also known as the “Spring Symphony”. The Beethoven is a congenial piece in C major with sparkling sections for the woodwinds and energetic passages running up and down for the strings. Notwithstanding its romantic title this bit of Beethoven doesn’t seem so eager to turn his world upside down (as Prometheus or the protesters might) but simply gives us something with the joyful delicacy of Haydn.

The Schumann symphony was an opportunity to see what our future might be like, as we get a better look at Gimeno. There’s no question that he has been embraced by the orchestra, who follow him doggedly. As I’ve mentioned before, Gimeno was a percussionist, and it shows in his solid metre and bold tempi.

The first movement began with a long moody introduction, apt for Spring when we recall that it’s a transitional season, out of the darkness of winter towards the brilliance of summer. When we get to the main allegro Gimeno holds nothing back, indeed the fastest version of this movement that I’ve ever heard. It’s coherent even if it’s right on the edge a couple of times. When it comes to the climactic phrases, they’re especially clear and powerful. For the second movement we’re into something subtler, a beautiful melody unfolding in the strings, then coming back gloriously in the cellos, decorated by delicate woodwind accompaniments. For the third movement we’re going quickly but without the ponderous or unsubtle tendencies one sometimes finds in interpretations of this movement, the melodic impulse always clear, always musical.

And for the finale oh my we’re again moving very quickly. Gimeno sometimes teases us with the transition passages between sections, where the tempo slows for a thoughtful moment. In such phrases we can see just how exquisite Gimeno’s control is. And then quick as we’re going, we still go faster to finish, the brass all in for the final statement.

It’s going to be fun watching the TSO and Gimeno in the years ahead.

Toronto Symphony Music Director Gustavo Gimeno
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