Gimeno conducts Beethoven 5

Wednesday night was the latest example of the remarkable chemistry we see, hear and feel between the Toronto Symphony and their new music director Gustavo Gimeno, continuing the magic of their 100th anniversary season.

Toronto Symphony music director Gustavo Gimeno

Last night’s program included Madrigal: Celebration Prelude by Harman and the A minor Cello Concerto by Schumann before intermission, followed by the Ligeti Cello Concerto, Jeder Baum spricht by Habibi and the Symphony #5 by Beethoven. .

As we’ve already seen from the TSO and Gimeno, a series of contrasting works in a program function like appetizers preparing our taste-buds.

You may think you know a piece. Yes I’ve heard this symphony #5 all my life, quoted in movies and even pop songs: yet Gimeno makes Beethoven feel original and brand new. The motto opening to the piece usually gets a big dramatic pause, but this version has almost no hesitation whatsoever, neither after the first four notes nor after the next four. It’s a breathless approach that was as much about watching the players responding as it was to the bold tempi and sharply etched dynamics. Everyone was on a bit of a roller-coaster ride.

Gimeno’s control isn’t just about speed, though. There’s a wonderful passage in the third movement. You’ll recall the movement is in c-minor (like the first movement), but includes a fabulous contrasting section in C-major that’s begun by the basses playing a fast melody that is the beginning of some contrapuntal hijinks with the rest of the orchestra. At one point things seem to stall, as the basses play a short phrase, and repeat it, before plunging back into their tune once more. Gimeno adds a teaser to this, having driven his orchestra so quickly, he leaves that phrase hanging for a breath or two. It’s a simple gesture but truly magical: and the orchestra are all in, fully committed to his vision.

And shortly thereafter we’re hearing the suspenseful transition to the last movement, as exciting a reading as any I have ever encountered, primed for this moment by a concert getting our ears attuned to sounds across the full range from barely audible to fortissimo.

Madrigals in its world premiere was a whimsical post-modern composition sounding like a hallucination you have after seeing too much Shakespeare, that irresitible lilt of Elizabethan dance-rhythms but sampled in chunks across different orchestral groups, sometimes delicately sweet in woodwinds, sometimes overpowering us in the lower brass like dancing hippopotami, but dressed in period costume of course. I was reminded of Hindemith, a modernist with an irresistible sense of humour. It was a remarkable three minutes.

Then we’re in a different realm altogether, via Robert Schumann. Cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras gave us a reading of the a minor concerto that seemed to be a method acting interpretation. We began as though the soloist were far away, almost lost to us, in his soft attacks and understated playing. There’s depression and madness underlying some of Schumann, and it seemed to show up here. I was wondering how this was going to work, to be honest, a bit perplexed, until I realized how genuinely he was exploring the piece in his reading. The word “organic” might fit, as Queyras held himself back as though stifling his impulse to be too big & loud at the start, introspective as I’ve never heard. And gradually our soloist found his solo voice, meaning bigger and more articulate, demanding our attention.

But Gimeno’s approach with the TSO was gentle and soft, so we could always apprehend these gradual tentative steps toward something more decisive. And then finally when the soloist showed us a bigger sound. Gimeno finally asked the orchestra to speak more powerfully in response, yet a soft dialogue for the most part. Indeed the thing about Gimeno that often impresses me the most is how often he gets this orchestra to play softly, to hold back. It makes the conclusions more dramatic, it makes the inner voices more readily available to discern. And my gosh but they respond to him.

This is the second time this season that we’re hearing Ligeti. I wonder if that’s ever happened before.

The Ligeti concerto is in many ways the opposite of the Schumann, demanding a different sort of virtuosity. We begin with the softest possible solo from the cello. Can one hear a soft solo cello, when people are talking and moving about? there was a person in front of me late coming back from intermission who plunked down and talked to his seat-mate, as the rest of us tried to hear Queyras. No matter, it’s still a fascinating exercise, and perfect preparation for the Beethoven, as we try to hear music on the edge of audibility, suddenly hearing more coughs than usual. Why is it that people think it’s okay to cough at such a time? The cough obscures the soft music, the same as if they were to stand in front of a painting in the AGO. I heard two loud moments when seats declared that the occupants had departed in mid-performance, making a sort of statement I suppose, even if I’d paraphrase the statement as an admission of their rudeness. But I suppose they wanted to hear their Beethoven. After Queyras made some very fast playing of great ferocity and heat, he would bring us eventually back to a quiet conclusion, the ending hard to discern. Our ears were being prepared, calibrating the space and the music.

Jeder Baum spricht is a short work that I understood as a preparation for the Beethoven, that the program note identified as a dialogue with the 5th & 6th symphonies of Beethoven, reflecting upon the climate catastrophe. While I applaud the ambitions of the work, I didn’t get it, except as a nice warm-up for the Beethoven that came immediately after. Perhaps I should hear it again.

Speaking of which, the concert repeats Thursday & Saturday at Roy Thomson Hall, and Sunday afternoon at George Weston Recital Hall. If you can make it I recommend it.

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2 Responses to Gimeno conducts Beethoven 5

  1. A brilliant evening. You’ve beautifully expressed my thoughts and reactions to all of it: including the coughs.

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