It was a unique Toronto Symphony concert. Conductor Gustavo Gimeno said he had never conducted six items on a program before.
It was pretty radical for me too, although I was fortunate. I noticed the unorthodox program and wrote about it a few days ago.
Gimeno actually took the microphone to speak of contrast, a word I am probably over-using at this point. This is the boldest TSO program yet, and with his little speech to begin things, he answered a question I had before. I had wondered: is this his idea or someone else in the TSO admin? The way he spoke it’s clear that this principle is near and dear to his heart.
Here’s what they played (the number with the ‘ gives you the length in minutes):
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′
I’m going to make an analogy, using food to describe our symphony concert experience tonight. It was like a series of hors d’oeuvres to prepare us for one item on the menu. Instead of the four items in the TSO season opener (featuring Scheherazade, Chopin’s 2nd Piano concerto plus two shorter items), or the 4 item program at the end of September (with Saint-Saëns: Symphony #3, two shorter ones featuring solo violin plus the Hebrides overture), we had five shorter works to go with the Beethoven 3rd piano concerto (for a total of six), featuring soloist Yefim Bronfman.
I wonder if this is a trend in entertaining? I was at a party last week featuring appetizers only, a feast of finger food. When I googled the idea I found a recent piece from Better Homes & Gardens.
The point is, why limit this idea to food? It’s exciting and dramatic to have an array of flavors, textures, visually appealing and likely cheaper to pull off in the kitchen. For the TSO, that’s maybe where the analogy breaks down, because all those short pieces require a different approach, and needing rehearsal, would be costly. Even so, the contrast was as effective to or ears and minds, as if we were really fed a series of appetizers.
By the time we got to Bronfman’s concerto our ears had been teased, bemused, awakened, encouraged. I think I’ve never heard such a polite attentive audience. For every piece, we were on the edge of our seats as if we were little kids on Christmas Eve, thrilled by what was being unwrapped before us.
The most exciting part for me was right after Gimeno spoke, preparing us for something a bit surprising, that made perfect sense once it was explained to us.
Gimeno had the TSO play the Ligeti and the Wagner together without pause, as though it were one piece.
If you know Atmosphères from the soundtrack album to the film 2001: a Space Odyssey, you might be surprised by how the TSO sound. It’s a gentler piece than what I recall in the film, possibly because of the way Gimeno approaches it. There are places that the music becomes almost silent, possibly because of the way the piece is structured, in sections depending on who is playing. I felt that Gimeno let it breathe, almost pushing the pause button rather than racing along. It feels very gentle, a series of different approaches to sound. They’re curiously similar to what Wagner was doing over 100 years earlier in his Lohengrin prelude.
There’s a big explanation of the story in the program that likely only confused people, given that we didn’t meet any of those characters. But Wagner paints a tone picture, as if the Holy Grail were descending from above, then (after we hear a motif we will later associate with the discovery of Lohengrin’s identity, forcing him to depart), the Grail seems to go back up, section by section: until it ends as softly as it started. It begins with high instruments (winds then strings), gradually adding section by section, until we get a climax. The treatment of materials between Ligeti and Wagner is a bit similar, given their choice to employ small groups from the orchestra while leaving others sitting idly counting rests. The combination of the two is itself the highlight of the concert, although there’s lots more.
The short Haydn symphony # 39 is a wonderfully energetic little piece, again including a few pauses in the first two movements. I wondered: were those in the score or was that Gimeno? He made a few silent pauses in the Haydn that seemed as mindful and reflective as the segues between sections in the Ligeti. The outer movements go fast, suggesting stormy weather while the inner movements are elegant dance movements. Viewing Haydn in this curious retrospective way –coming back to the 18th century from ultra-modern Ligeti and romantic Wagner—we are extra attentive to every nuance.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Volpini’s Celebration Prelude, getting its world premiere tonight. It certainly did what was asked of it in beginning a very edgy program. I felt there’s more material there, that Volpini had not exhausted the ideas presented, suggesting (for me) points of light in the sky. We came to the conclusion, abruptly seeming to be high as if on a ledge: but wait we were finished…! I had this wonderful sense of vertigo, and that there was more to come. Volpini was playing with us.
We came to intermission, and I was certainly appetized. (Is here such a word?) I was hungry for more.
Then Chin’s subito con forza continued to play with us. It’s a delightful work with tiny bits of Beethoven. We get the series of notes from the Leonore overture (s) that seem to portend something, but without the conclusion, the cadenza from the opening of the 5th piano concerto, veering off track, the opening to the Coriolan overture twisted into pieces. Thinking back to another take on Ludwig, this is not nearly a fifth of Beethoven. More like a thimble full.
But that (including its final C-minor chord) set us up for the 3rd concerto, also in C-minor. Bronfman and Gimeno seemed to be on the same page, in a very conventional reading. I’m reminded of my Barenboim set, conducted by Klemperer, that has all the gravitas and seriousness the piece demands. Our ears were ready, the audience so keen as to applaud after the first movement. I’m not one of those purists who minds that.
This wonderful concert program repeats Friday and Saturday night at Roy Thomson Hall.