The TSO’s new director is looking up to the downbeat
by Tash Cowley & Michael Zarathus-Cook
Four Questions with Gustavo Gimeno
In the music world, the role of the conductor is not to be underestimated. From the velvet seats to the orchestra pit, eyes and ears are tightly attuned to their every move. The spirit, energy, and atmosphere of a piece can live and die with its conductor, who must walk the tightrope of tension and release while allowing musicians freedom within the structures of the sheet music. It is a highly delicate art, bringing moving parts together in harmony, and world-renowned conductor Gustavo Gimeno has mastered it, not only on stage, but in every role he has played during his fascinating musical career.
Gimeno routinely leads the finest ensembles in venues around the world, and when he is not in the studio, he serves as Music Director of the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, and of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO). Since his tenure with the TSO began in 2020, Gimeno has committed his time and energy in equal measure to developing exciting new programs, designed to resonate with people from all walks of life.
The TSO will be celebrating its centenary in 2022. In conversation with smART Magazine, Gimeno discusses the prioritization of newer artists in the TSO’s programming, and his vision to roundly represent the cultural richness of Toronto by a blending of the “old and new.”
“I’ve discovered, and am still learning, that there is not just one Toronto; there are many Torontos. I think that is crucial, and a very important fact to keep in mind.”
by Ella Mazur
Most important qualities in an orchestra musician?
Open-mindedness and flexibility.
Favourite contemporary composer?
Spanish composer Francisco Coll; we will be playing his violin concerto next season in Toronto, for its North American premiere.
Your favourite cafe in Amsterdam?
Home! I have everything I need; coffee, red wine, gin...it’s all here!
City most similar to Toronto?
Despite pandemic delays, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s conductor keeps up the tempo on everything from leadership changes, to progressive programming, to reading lists.
What are some of the features in programming that you’d like to implement to expand the orchestra’s global appeal? And what creative opportunities does this city present that you perhaps won’t find elsewhere?
While we can’t yet discuss the exact details of our programming, I believe that next season’s artistic schedule will speak for itself. We have been planning within the confines of existing restrictions, and in a sense have been programming our 2022/23 season hypothetically, imagining how the structure would work best. I feel familiar with the history of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and I know how active the orchestra has been in commissioning new works, so those elements have been incorporated into both the 2021/22 and 2022/23 seasons.
Programming core repertoire and well-known works for our audience is obviously important, but I also believe that we are living in a time where integration and togetherness are especially interesting and significant. Within many of the programs, the chosen pieces contrast strongly with each other in terms of style, era, and aesthetics. I think including fresh, new voices is really important, not only new music but also music by living composers who have perhaps had their work premiered by the TSO. By fusing innovation with core works of the classical symphonic repertoire, we are varying the programming, which is a challenge for us—for me, but also for the musicians! However, we knew that this was the journey we wanted to take our audience on. I’m aware of the fact that orchestras in Europe are funded in a different way, which in certain situations can make the process of blending established works with newer artists more stable. But that’s part of why it was important for us to combine these newer voices with the music and musicians that people know so well. I find that Torontonians have a sophisticated and adventurous appreciation for music, and Toronto is such a culturally vivid city. My belief is that we have a responsibility in two directions, both to honour what people know and love and to challenge ourselves and our audiences.
Finding a position in Ontario and in Toronto, being a part of those communities, is crucial for us; however, touring and playing globally is also very important, and we are looking to find a place in the wider world of performance. Clearly, everyone is still navigating the difficulties associated with the pandemic, but our minds are now working towards the future. We fully expect to perform outside of Toronto, and outside of Canada; touring and finding new destinations is one of the central challenges and goals for our future.
With the upcoming vacancy in the CEO’s chair, what are some of the priorities and qualities that you’re hoping the incoming leader brings to the position?
One thing I have discovered in the last few years is just how many talented people exist within the TSO, not only in the orchestra itself but in the artistic and administrative teams. It’s so motivating to feel this support, to feel that I’m in the right place and working within a solid structure. It’s clearly disappointing that the current CEO, Matthew Loden, is stepping away from the TSO because I have enjoyed working with Matthew hugely, despite the unexpected difficulties we’ve faced as a team. We went through an extraordinary phase together, one which neither of us could have anticipated, as you can imagine. But I am truly grateful for everything he has done at the TSO and, looking forward, I believe we have new opportunities ahead of us. I am viewing it as an opportunity for change. As I always say, never look too much into the past, only do so to gather information and to reflect. It’s very much part of my nature to look forward instead of backward, and this is a chance to look forward.
The fact that the orchestra has such a strong reputation as an organization is a real positive and should greatly benefit the TSO in its search for a new CEO. I believe that the history and the quality of the TSO is incredibly appealing, and the search committee is already seeking out candidates. Logic dictates that they will need to have strong skills in both business and finance, but I also strongly believe that the top priority should be maintaining the artistic excellence of the orchestra. The search committee is already working on it, and soon we will be moving into the next phase and chapter of our search. I am confident that we will have a new CEO sooner rather than later! I am hugely thankful to Matthew Loden, and I enjoyed working with him very much; but reality is where it is, and we are looking forward, with confidence, to the future.
“As I always say, never look too much into the past, only do so to gather information and to reflect.”
The diversity of Toronto’s population presents unique challenges for inclusive programming, so looking at the next five years, what transformations are on your wishlist to make the TSO better reflect the city’s multicultural tapestry?
You can’t imagine how much I’ve learned—and am continuing to learn—about the cultural diversity of Toronto over the last few years, and how enriching and inspiring that has been. It has been truly transformative and has become a crucial and very exciting element of programming. I’m constantly discovering exciting composers, younger generations who represent different backgrounds and origins, and I strongly believe that the more we can feature individuals who reflect our diverse community, the better. We should strive toward building connections between people throughout Toronto, connections through which different communities can engage with and enjoy the power of music and music making.
One thing I have realized about the recent past of the TSO—which may or may not have been right for the time—is that different series of works were previously separated, according to the style, background, or aesthetics of the compositions. Now, we are prioritizing integration and bringing original, fresh voices which represent the different parts of society, different origin stories within Toronto, and the very many different versions of Toronto that we have. I’ve discovered, and am still learning, that there is not just one Toronto; there are many Torontos. I think that is crucial, and a very important fact to keep in mind. And it’s not only myself who is working to highlight and celebrate this; I’m especially proud that everyone in the organization and the orchestra is on the same page. Orchestral music is an enriching experience, and when we present and support a wider variety of ethnicities, our Indigenous artists, and female artists on stage, it benefits Toronto’s artistic scene immeasurably.
Personally, I’ve hugely enjoyed this journey of discovery. Even with the restrictions and limitations of the pandemic, and despite the difficulties we have faced in looking forward when the future is uncertain, I think our programming for the 2021/22 season is already reflecting a commitment to increased diversity and inclusivity. To give just one example, we have become involved in Tapestry Opera’s Women in Musical Leadership program, which is very exciting! So, there are lots of things going on, all at the same time, and every single program is another opportunity to create something utterly fresh and unique.
“I find that Torontonians have a sophisticated and adventurous appreciation for music, and Toronto is such a culturally vivid city.”
What is one book that informs your leadership style?
I think a lot about a book called Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society, by Daniel Barenboim andEdward Said. In this book, they discuss music, politics, different cultures, and the contrasts within those cultures, and they also discuss the concept of home and what it means to us. And, of course, they talk about composers! It’s especially interesting for me to realize how all these different topics connect to and inform each other. I find the conversations and reflections between these two people particularly inspiring. When I find something that stirs me in this way, whether it’s directly linked to music, the arts, or general life, it reinforces what I understand about leadership. I never think of leadership from an external perspective, or from outside, superficial layers. I believe it stems from knowledge, from increased appreciation of art or music, from influences that shape the inner life. That which inspires and motivates me will inform aspects of my personality, including my leadership style.