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Review: Toronto Symphony Orchestra | Gimeno + Dvorak's “New World”

Out of that elusive calculus by which concert programs are concocted, the latest Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) production emerges as an interesting amalgamation. The program is a good indication of what the tenure of Music Director Gustavo Gimeno has in store for the years to come. Every orchestra is capable of flops, even the TSO, but these happen so rarely – thanks in part to the often traditional bent of the programing - that we take for granted the small miracle that’s just occured when a performance sincerely inspires upwards of three curtain calls. Gimeno + Dvorak's “New World” did exactly that in a concert that challenged as much as it satisfied expectations.

Gimeno + Dvorak's "New World" - Photo by Jag Gundu

In his interview with smART Magazine for Issue No.7, Gimeno responded to the issue of challenging audiences with dynamic programming – without alienating the traditional demographic – with a depth of thought that hints at the complexities involved in this task:

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.Gustavo Gimeno.

It’s easy to talk the talk on a Zoom call when you’re just a couple weeks into the gig, but programs like Gimeno + Dvorak's “New World” vouch for the Director’s ability to also walk in the direction of new and interesting experiments on the podium.

Putting together a dextrous program that stretches what the orchestra can do is not unlike organising a four-course meal ─ deliver a couple jabs with appetisers and hors d'oeuvres, and knock them out with the main course (in this case, Dvorak’s New World Symphony). First on the menu was the world premiere of a TSO commission: Mi Piñata by Mexican composer, Luis Ramirez. It’s a quaint and unpretentious take on a straightforward theme of walking up to a piñata and doing major damage in one single blow. Though the composer was present for a well deserved curtain call, the piece had Gimeno’s fingerprints all over it. For one, Ramirez is the kind of composer you have to go looking for, as the classical repertoire has hitherto made very little space for otherwise obvious talents such as his. Gimeno went looking, and found a work that makes up for its brevity with a smattering of atypical instruments, particularly in the percussion sections, that made for a light fanfare ending humorously with a flush down the rain stick.

Gimeno + Dvorak's "New World" - Photo by Jag Gundu

Bohislav Martinu’s The Rock was next on the docket for a slightly more cerebral turn in the program, and a great prefix for Hans Abrahamsen’s Horn Concerto. Inspired by Plymouth Rock, The Rock was the composer’s response to contrast of the natural sceneries of the American east coast and the racial turmoil of the 50’s ─ the racial integration of the Little Rock Central High School (Arkansas) was on the composer’s mind the year it was composed. Here again the percussions section is a standout, from the caterwaul of timpanis to the seismic rumbles of the bass drums. For something completely different, Stefan Dohr’s performance of the aforementioned Horn Concerto can be described as a virtuoso cosplaying as an amateur with a penchant for improvisation — in a good way. At least that’s what it seems Abrahamsen intended with this concerto. Nothing behaves as expected, not the structure of the movements (slow-fast-slow) nor the instruments: every time the piccolo and celesta chimed in, you’d think someone’s early-2000’s ringtone was going off.

Dvorak’s Symphony No.9 is – and I sincerely believe this – the most complete work of the symphonic repertoire. New World does almost everything a symphony can do, and everything an orchestra could do at the time of its composition (1893). It’s my favourite symphony, so even a mediocre execution would still leave me with chills, but this TSO performance was at that calibre of fidelity to the composer’s vision where the instruments seem to dissolve into the music itself. From the sombre theme on oboe in the second movement, to that infectious main theme of the Scherzo, the performance was handled with as much freshness and anticipation as with Mi Piñata. Gimeno’s style on the podium – which tends to furnish gestures with a graceful and refined exaggeration – can at times leave too little to the imagination, a vestige perhaps of his background as a percussionist. But that style is perfectly suited for this symphony’s more muscular components, with arms punctuating every other bar for emphasis.

Gimeno + Dvorak's "New World" - Photo by Jag Gundu

On the surface, this program seems to be loosely centred on a theme of works composed for and on the American continent (with the Horn Concerto being the exception); or, more generally, on the arrival of spring. But the internal logic of this compilation is ultimately as a herald to the creative capacity of the Music Director responsible for it. A capacity that will be exercised to its fullness in the coming years. The next opportunity to catch one of these dynamic TSO programs is May 19, with Gimeno + Hannigan – a much anticipated concert which was also a subject of Barbara Hannigan’s interview with smART Magazine in the upcoming Issue 9 (available to pre-order).

Author: Michael Zarathus-Cook

Date: April 30th, 2022

Venue: Roy Thomson Hall - Toronto

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