It was a splendid formula. Far be it from me to propose something as reductive as math in the headline, only that the concert is titled “Gimeno + Hannigan”, which is certainly a quick overview. Between them Gustavo Gimeno and Barbara Hannigan gave the audience a lot to cheer for.
At this point in time when we’re rediscovering live music everything is new. We’re still in the early days of Gimeno’s tenure as the new Music Director of the Toronto Symphony. How magical to hear two world premieres. How marvelous when the oldest music on the program was from the 20th Century:
Julia Mermelstein: in moments, into bloom: Celebration Prelude (world premiere #1)
Igor Stravinsky: Scherzo fantastique, Op. 3
Zosha Di Castri / test by Tash Aw: In the Half-light (world premiere #2)
Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird (original 1910 complete ballet)
While the hall appeared to be less than half full, they more than made up for it in response to the performances, including the nerd behind me explaining every piece to his companion. While it’s frustrating when talk interrupts music, I had to like their enthusiasm for the TSO, for Stravinsky and for Hannigan.
The three composers gave us three contrasting styles of music.
The song cycle sung by Hannigan was a bit frustrating for me, although you might well say it’s my own fault. I read the poetry over twice, possibly three times, then sat listening to the cycle. The first sung words I was able to discern came in a pianissimo passage halfway through the first song, when Hannigan sings “you give me food. I offer a dress”. At this moment the orchestra allowed her to sing unencumbered. Should her words be intelligible? I’m not sure. I encounter rock music without being able to understand lyrics, forced to look them up online. When I listened to Mahler’s Song of the Earth for the first few times I always followed along with the text. So perhaps I was being unreasonable in wanting to hear it without the printed text in front of me. Even so, I think it’s long overdue for Roy Thomson Hall to project text onto readable surfaces, such as the concrete above the orchestra (as I remarked in a review I wrote when Hannigan sang here in 2019) I must emphasize that it’s a stunning piece of music whether one hears every word clearly or not. I knew from reading the text what the cycle was about (“subjects of displacement, belonging and home“), but still, only picked up roughly ¼ of the words. And maybe the orchestra was playing too loudly; or am I invoking a quaint idea, that the soloist should be heard clearly? I would rather watch the performers, rather than having to bury my head in a program, especially when I don’t know beforehand whether the house-lights will be on or not; I think they were on….but by then it was too late, as I was using the virtual program I’d received on my iPhone, which they tell us to shut off at the start of the concert. A few times Hannigan is soaring to the top of her range, sometimes making sounds that are powerful, sometimes vulnerable to the point of seeming broken, sometimes softly lyrical. She’s a brilliant performer, a fabulous actor, so no wonder I chose to watch her. It’s 20 minutes of magic, both from the soloist and the orchestra that sometimes growls brass clusters, slides around between pitches on glissandi, always keeping our interest. For me the affect spoke more to alienation and dislocation than a joyful adventure. I wish I could hear it again.
Mermelstein’s brief fanfare in celebration of the Toronto Symphony’s centennial was a lovely three minutes of shifting colours, as though suggesting the growth of Canadian music created for the TSO. I think the metaphor worked, as the music did seem completely organic, even alive in what we heard.
The other composer we encountered was once a touchstone for “new music” even if the two pieces on tonight’s program were the most conventional of his works. One might even be understood as a popular classic, at least as far as the audience’s recognition of some of its themes. I speak of the Firebird, presented in a slightly different version than usual, but still offering the audience huge thrills. The ovation was genuine.
Gimeno has shown me a tendency to take the TSO on thrill-rides, tonight being no exception. Soloists in every section had great opportunities to show us their stuff, but often in the context of faster than usual tempi. It’s wonderful to see the rapport between them, the trust they place in his hands and the response they make to his baton.
You can catch this concert on the night of Saturday May 21st when the TSO repeat this program at Roy Thomson Hall.