Provocative TSO program: a glimpse of Gimeno

It’s fun getting to know the new music director of the Toronto Symphony, Gustavo Gimeno. I’m excited both by the programming and the performances.

Assembling concerts involves a curating process, picking & choosing pieces for performance.

Forgive me for repeating myself, as I again quote Gimeno’s bold statement, resembling a manifesto. I’m excited by what Gimeno has told us they would do. It’s “they” because a team books soloists & assembles the TSO season; it’s not something he does alone. He is leader giving direction not only to the orchestra from the podium but also the whole TSO team.

His stated goal is very exciting.

“The creation of contrast is at the heart of what I believe about concert programming—the coming together of past and future, masterworks side by side with new commissions, old friends and new faces on the concert stage: all manner of refreshing or startling juxtapositions.”

I’ve seen musicians promise before. But when I saw the music the TSO are giving us next, the concerts on October 12, 14 & 15, I was really eager to hear. Let me explain. Here’s what they’re playing (the number with the ‘ is the length of the piece).

Volpini Celebration Prelude World Première/TSO Commission 3′
Ligeti Atmosphères 8′
Wagner Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin 9′
Haydn Symphony No. 39 “Tempesta di mare” 16′


Chin subito con forza 5′
Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 34′

It’s exciting for at least two reasons.

First off, it reminds me of some of my best experiences tasting food. Notice that we’re not getting meat & potatoes, but instead a series of aural appetizers, provoking our ears, prodding us with a big variety of different flavors. In a word: “contrast.”

Five items, mostly short, set us up for the sixth, the big finale.

And the pieces themselves? an intriguing mix to make you sit up and take notice. What grabbed my attention? First, seeing György Ligeti’s Atmospheres programmed at all, music you’ve probably heard in Kubrick’s 2001: A space odyssey, arguably one of the pieces of music most closely associated with modernity.

Ligeti composed in a style we call “modernist” although wonder of wonders, the next piece on the program is from the composer who arguably began modernism, Richard Wagner. In fact the first piece of his we might call “modernist” is Tristan und Isolde (composed years later), yet the Lohengrin prelude is a work of great importance.

That prelude from Lohengrin was influential. Baudelaire wrote a celebratory essay about hearing this piece, describing its impact, and no wonder. The composition seems to describe a host of angels bringing the Holy Grail down to earth. While the musical methods between Ligeti & Wagner are different in the extreme, yet both pieces have been used (at least when we factor in Kubrick) to suggest a journey of the spirit.

It’s hard to imagine a bigger contrast than that between Ligeti’s Atmospheres and Wagner’s Lohengrin Prelude.

The TSO follow those two with an example of something known by musicologists as “sturm und drang” (storm and stress), the 18th century precursor to the romantics like Beethoven. It’s intriguing that this short symphony by Haydn is actually understood as a suggestion if not a literal depiction of a storm, titled “Tempesta di mare”.

We move with each piece from the present further into the past, with Volpini’s prelude (2022) followed by Ligeti (1961), Wagner (1848) and Haydn (1765). The sequence is counter-intuitive, the way Godfather II probes the young Vito Corleone we met in the first Godfather movie, also reminding me of the sequence of essays in Sarah Polley’s Run Towards the Danger. We’re digging into the past, finding the origins of what follows, or at least playing with the way we hear. Wagner will sound edgier after Ligeti, and Haydn in turn will seem more provocative seen in context with what he started.

Following intermission we have a fascinating pair.

Before the Beethoven Piano concerto #3, we hear Chin’s subito con forza (Italian for “suddenly with force”), a remarkable piece full of allusions to Beethoven.

It still sounds like a 21st century composition, but there are unmistakable traces. We begin with something resembling the opening to Beethoven’s Coriolan overture. A solo piano cadenza reminds us of the opening to Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto. We get a pattern of repeating notes that build suspense something like the way it works in Beethoven’s Leonore overtures (overtures plural because Beethoven wrote more than one version).

Why not quote /or refer to other music? We do it in literature: but of course there have been periods when allusions were okay, other times when they weren’t in fashion. I love when Bruckner quotes Wagner or when Richard Strauss quotes his own pieces. Inter-textual references can be fascinating.

And then we come to the Beethoven 3rd piano concerto, from 1800. I think it’s under-rated. The first movement has the usual pair of contrasting themes, one dark & majestic, the other serene & melodic. But Beethoven also has a rhythmic motif going throughout the movement. I remember playing some of it long ago for Clark (a friend), who said it reminds him of the human pulse. It’s uncanny once you notice it. Clark thought the magical passage coming out of the first movement cadenza, when the orchestra softly resumes, with its soft insistent pulse motif, leading to the big conclusion, resembles waking up from a dream or coming down from being stoned on LSD. Or in other words it’s very cool.

The second movement is a sweetly melodic departure from the intensity of the opening movement, before the finale. Where did Beethoven get this tune, so unlike anything he wrote before or after? It sounds vaguely ethnic (Hungarian? Slavic?), and an excuse for wonderful pianism.

There’s of course a whole other side to the curating of a season, namely the talent. When it was Scheherazade we could bask in the warm tones of concertmaster Jonathan Crow, who works for the TSO. For next week we’ll hear Yefim Bronfman. I don’t know him, but look forward to finding out how he plays Beethoven. I wonder how they set this up? It’s complex I’m sure. Which reminds us of the team-work in programming. I wonder, did they start with Bronfman, ask him in 2021 or even before that “what do you want to play in 2022”?

And maybe he (or his agent) said “let’s do Beethoven’s 3rd piano concerto.”

At that point perhaps the TSO team began assembling the hors d’oeuvres to introduce their concerto, filtered through Gimeno’s goal of contrast…? It’s a fun thing to imagine assembling the meal, even more fun to have my mouth water in anticipation of the feast next week.

I’m looking forward to tasting / hearing it, and in the process getting a closer look at Gimeno.

TSO Music Director Gustavo Gimeno
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2 Responses to Provocative TSO program: a glimpse of Gimeno

  1. Pingback: Gimeno prepares the taste-buds for Bronfman’s Beethoven | barczablog

  2. Pingback: Best of 2022 | barczablog

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