Joyful Gimeno + Virtuosic TSO

The title of tonight’s performance by Toronto Symphony was “Gimeno + Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, a celebratory concert. It’s the TSO’s centennial season and a perfect way to bring Gustavo Gimeno’s first in-person season as music director to a conclusion.

The orchestra seems to respond to their new maestro. At times they seem to read his mind, everyone in accord. I listened to the quickest tempi I’ve ever heard in this well-known work, one we’ve all heard many times. The TSO have become an assembly of virtuoso talent, sounding fearless and bold. Faster is the way the historically informed players do it, so this is arguably authentic even if we’re hearing modern instruments rather than the sort that you’d hear from a band such as Tafelmusik.

At this tempo, the “Ode to Joy” is very enjoyable. And I think it’s easier for singers, who don’t require as much air, and don’t have to sit so long on the high notes.

The audience went crazy at the end with their applause.

I was a little bit surprised to see the placement of the soloists, in the centre of the choir loft with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.

Soloists MacKinnon, Segal, Haji, Duncan, led by Peter Oundjian (photo: Nick Wons)

When we heard the TSO and TMC commemorating the departure of Peter Oundjian in June 2018 (already four years ago) the soloists were at the front of the stage which is as far as I know it closer to the acoustical sweet spot than where this group of soloists (Angela Meade, Rihab Chaieb, Issachah Savage and Ryan Speedo Green) were placed last night. Excuse me for the amateurish photo I’m supplying, from the curtain call. Gimeno is not visible, but the soloists are there far from the audience. They sang very well.

While it is true that tenor Issachah Savage likely has a bigger voice than Andrew Haji, I wonder: did they seek out a heldentenor (that is, a tenor with a sufficiently heroic sound suitable to carry over a Wagnerian orchestra) knowing that he and his soloist colleagues would be placed so far away? They all had big strong voices.

The opening of the concert was especially intriguing as the TSO offered three consecutive pieces receiving their world premieres with this concert series, each one a TSO NextGen Commission:
1-A Dream of Refuge by Adam Scime
2-Bite by Bekah Simms
3-Unrelenting Sorrow by Roydon Tse

It was tempting to frame them in context with the Beethoven that was to follow intermission. While each five minute work has a different rationale and style, composed by a different young Canadian composer, I saw them as a kind of triptych. Remember that before the soloists and chorus enter for the fourth movement of Beethoven’s 9th we get three contrasting instrumental movements.

Beethoven’s allegro seems to emerge out of a misty nothingness, the ambiguous void of its open fifths. That was in the back of my mind listening to Scime’s piece, that also employed some ambiguously open tonalities in service of his exploration of alienation and the anxieties of the pandemic. The big existential questions of life underlie both the first movement of the Beethoven and Scime’s work.

Beethoven’s second movement scherzo is a burst of energy, less about asking the meaning of life and more likely to make us ask “how did they make that sound?” It’s a fabulous exploration of orchestral timbres that still sounds fresh two centuries later (the premiere was almost exactly 200 years ago by the way). Simms’ piece is the one of the three new works most concerned with timbre, indeed likely to make you say “how did they make that sound:” which is pretty cool to achieve for 2022. As with Beethoven’s scherzo we’re in ambiguous territory emotionally, neither comical or tragic, but listening to big and small sounds, very much in the moment even with the teasing silences near the end. As with the Beethoven, the tempo is faster –Gimeno’s arms moving faster in this piece (I almost said “movement”… but pardon me, it’s not really triptych no matter how hard I try to make it into one) – than in either of the other two works.

When we began Tse’s work I was reminded of the third movement of the Beethoven. I may be wrong to say this but I’ve always seen the opening two movements (the allegro and the scherzo) as hugely revolutionary, the existential ambiguities of that first movement leading us to such things as the opening D minor chase of Die Walküre and the ambiguities of tonality we get in Nuages by Debussy at the close of the 19th century. The second movement scherzo changes the rules for such movements (even if he already hinted at this in some of his earlier works such as the piano sonata Op 101), opening the template wide for what’s to come in the early 20th century with Mahler and Shostakovich.

The third movement though? The adagio might be Beethoven almost saying “nicht diese tone”. I’m being ironic of course, as I don’t mean in the spirit of the “Ode to Joy” which opens with that phrase, asking us to be joyful, but rather speaking to our sense of musical style: literally not these tones. If Beethoven has so far freaked us out with the newness of his first two movements –and it’s reported that’s how some people responded—the gentle opening notes and the melody coming as consolation and reassurance, take us to something less radical, less threatening, with more than a hint of nostalgia.

That’s how I see Tse’s piece. Of the three new works, in “Unrelenting Sorrow”, where he would explore loss from war and pandemic, Tse is undertaking the most conventional sort of piece in seeking to be melodic and appealing to our emotions, taking us in a late-romantic direction. As such it’s a brave choice, one that not all composers can handle. I think the work succeeds admirably.

And so, let me just ponder the triptych for a moment (given that I’ll never encounter them again this way), this trio of existential angst (Scime), provocative and experimental sounds in the moment (Simms), and a melodic exploration of sadness (Tse). They made a terrific appetizer for the evening, ably executed by the TSO and Gimeno, who so far seems to be championing new composition. I don’t know who’s really deciding the programming and commissioning, but when they’re up there on the stage, Gimeno is truly leading the players, and they’re giving us a full commitment.

The concert repeats Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at Roy Thomson Hall. For further information or tickets click here.

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1 Response to Joyful Gimeno + Virtuosic TSO

  1. Pingback: TSO Season Finale – Reviews – Roydon Tse

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