This past week’s Toronto Symphony concert offering “Visions of Spain” also gave a few interesting perspectives on their new Spanish-born music director Gustavo Gimeno.
After two rather obscure pieces before intermission, we proceeded to three of the most well-known pieces associated with Spain, in a concert drawn entirely from compositions of the 20th or 21st century.
First came selections from Manuel de Falla’s El amor brujo that furnished the opportunity for the TSO to play alongside members of the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra, including some superb solos from the young players. When Gimeno took the microphone to speak of the lessons learned on both sides (teachers and mentors as much as the students) his sincerity was evident. I sat beside a mother watching her child playing, encountering other family members in the lobby and being greeted by an especially enthusiastic little one in the washroom.
Next came Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar and orchestra featuring soloist Juan Manuel Cañizares. I’ve been in love with this piece since it grabbed me back in my days working in a record store in 1980. The second movement with its stunning English horn melody is the most famous part, leading the guitar eventually to a stunning cadenza exploring the implications of the melody, before leading us back to an explosive orchestral tutti giving us the melody in its boldest version. Cañizares took us to the biggest dynamic extremes, so soft but growing until eventually so powerful.
The first movement used to be my favorite at one time with its rhythmic energy, its clever use of a melody that is barely more than a couple of notes. But nowadays the one that stays in my head most (all three movements containing passages that can be like delightful ear-worms, to be honest) is the last one with a playful approach to keep you guessing until the last phrase sneaks away into the darkness. One of the great joys of this piece was to watch the interplay between Cañizares and Gimeno, in a respectful dialogue between orchestra and virtuoso guitar. And then Cañizares blew us away with a superb encore (no idea what the piece is called), the orchestra sitting respectfully in place while Gimeno bobbed around in his seat like a kid watching his hero in action.
Finally we heard Ravel’s Boléro, watching Gimeno watch the orchestra. Did he conduct? Not at first. Boléro is remarkable for its uniform template of verse after verse of a melody, over a rhythm laid down by the snare drum playing as steadily as a metronome. Of course that’s easier said than done, and likely appreciated by Gimeno, the former percussionist.
We went through verse after verse while Gimeno watched, sometimes moving his focus of attention given that in a real sense he’s the audience for whom the TSO are playing. Only when we came to the verses using the full orchestra more than halfway through the composition, with strings playing the melody, did Gimeno take up his baton to lead.
And while we’re told in the program that they’re to play as loudly as possible I swear this was an organic build-up that didn’t strike my ear as loud or offensive. I recall performances where the final phrases (with those wacky sounds that tell you it’s ending shortly) jar and jolt you, noisy and edgy. Not so Gimeno’s TSO. We started very softly, and as always this orchestra tends to be softer than any I can recall. And I like it.
We began with the Canadian premiere of Aqua Cinerea from Francisco Coll, a young Spanish composer Gimeno has championed. What struck me about this piece was that it does not sound like the output of a conservatory musician trained in the usual procedures but rather something strikingly original, almost like crossover: where we see someone new to the discipline unafraid to break rules. Frequently the piece includes small details and barely audible decoration that colours the whole without overpowering it.
No the program was not all Spanish music. Surely Gimeno wouldn’t want to overdo it. The second piece on the program was Henri Dutilleux’s First Symphony, a work sounding far less radical than its composition date of 1951 might suggest. This Dutilleux work gives the TSO opportunities to shine, colourful moments in each movement without being noisy or dissonant. There’s a clever scherzo, eventually a peaceful ending.
I suspect Gimeno won’t be pressured to program works he doesn’t like, and will find beauty in any piece they undertake. In about a month, the TSO will play and then record Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie. Is this to be their identity, I wonder: fearlessly undertaking works of the last century, as they did this past week? We shall see.