Gemma New, Kerson Leong and the TSO: “allez grand ou rentrez chez vous”

Last night I heard the first of the Toronto Symphony’s weekend of romantic works, responding passionately to their guest conductor, the New Zealand-born Gemma New.

Gemma New

I noticed her intense display of commitment, yet so respectful of every collaborator in this rather large exercise in team-work. She shook hands with concertmaster Jonathan Crow at least three different times.

Then I remembered her brilliant work three years ago at the Toronto Summer Music Festival alongside Crow leading a reduced version of Mahler’s Song of the Earth.

At the time I said this: “It was a great pleasure watching New’s direction, her body language so articulate as to seem to paint the music in the air before her.”

Gemma New (Fred Stucker Photography)

And now the TSO have brought New in, likely with Crow’s encouragement.

Gemma New leading the TSO (photo: Jag Gundu /

I should explain what I mean when I speak of romantics on the program:
-Mendelssohn: Hebrides Overture (1830)
-Moussa: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra “Adriano” (2019)
-Chausson: Poème for Violin and Orchestra (1896)
-Saint-Saëns: Symphony #3 (1886)

While Moussa’s Violin Concerto dates from an entirely different century than the other works, its objectives in depicting Mount Etna belong perfectly with a work such as Mendelssohn’s Scottish mood-painting.

Two of the four items featured young violinist Kerson Leong, who also offered a lengthy encore to reward us for our enthusiastic response to the Moussa Concerto. I couldn’t hear him name the piece but it featured his fabulous tone, perfect intonation and confident personality, much as we heard in both the Concerto and the Poème.

Gemma New with Kerson Leong violin (photo: Jag Gundu /

New’s interpretations all seemed to favor something more subtle than what we usually hear. For the first part of the Hebrides overture I was reminded of my childhood favorite, Klemperer: whose slow thoughtful readings exposed every nuance. While the ensemble did build to climaxes there was still a great deal of restraint and elegance. Similarly the Poème probed gently rather than blatantly, in keeping with the symbolist ideal (“symbolist” being a better epithet to hang on Chausson’s short life than “impressionist”).

New’s leadership always seemed to be lucid as far as musical objectives. When we came to the big finale, namely Saint-Saëns’ 3rd Symphony aka the Organ Symphony, I think everyone knew this was to be the payoff. Again we were treated to subtle and soulful readings until the last movement.

Jean-Willy Kunz, organ with TSO (photo: Jag Gundu /

The last five minutes of this work I imagine if Saint-Saëns had written into the score words to the effect of “allez grand ou rentrez chez vous” : “go big or go home”. Naturally that’s not how they would write in a score in the 1880s. Yet the orchestra and the organ soloist need the big bold gestures to finish the half hour work. If they’re done crisply & coherently the statement is that much stronger. It can be, must be, theatrical magic. Fun, thrills, glorious music-making.

Yes. New and the TSO came through for us. The audience went crazy immediately after the conclusion, thrilled by what we’d heard. I was moved to google dates. Those overplayed opening measures of Richard Strauss’s tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, with organ, brass fanfare and timpani, were first heard almost a decade after Saint-Saëns’ 3rd Symphony premiered. Of course the resemblance is between Strauss’s opening & Saint-Saëns’ conclusion, but I wonder…

Strauss knew a good thing when he heard it. So did we (the audience).

The concert program repeats Saturday night Oct 1 and Sunday afternoon Oct 2nd.

This entry was posted in Dance, theatre & musicals, Music and musicology, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s