Why Here Matters: Yo-Yo Ma Celebrates 100 Years of the TSO
All North-American program sets the tone for the TSO’s future and reaffirms it’s commitment to the here and now
November 16, 2022 | Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto
WORDS BY MICHAEL ZARATHUS-COOK
Why are we here? And by here I mean Roy Thomson Hall on any given night that the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) is performing. Why are we preserving this music? Why, as taxpayers, are we contributing to the perpetuation of this organisation’s competitiveness on the world stage? These are of course questions that are taken for granted, and were perhaps settled at a much earlier point in the TSO’s 100-year history. Yet, it seems these are precisely the type of questions that concerts such as this Celebrate 100: A Gala Evening with Yo-Yo Ma examines within the context of a centennial celebration. The answers yielded are as multivarious as the number of tickets sold, but the overwhelming sentiment was singular: nothing else does what this music can do, and the way we do it here cannot be replicated anywhere else. And after a century as an ensemble - one that began with false starts and a grassroots effort - the TSO seems to be charting a path forward that is uniquely Canadian, and an increasingly prominent node in the circuit of concerts by some of the world’s most celebrated talents. This program - with Yo-Yo Ma and Jeremy Dutcher in tow - exuded the type of confidence that comes not only from turning 100, but also from striking an optimal balance between the horse-and-buggy that your audience is accustomed to—and the Ford Model T that’ll drive them into the future.
Jeremy Dutcher and Sarah Prosper | Photo by Jag Gundu : Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Returning to this topic of here, the TSO managed to deliver the most evocative land acknowledgements I’ve seen at a concert. Part of what has made land acknowledgements a staid and performative curtsy is how it is we hope to honour the traditional territories which we occupy despite the absence of the Indigenous peoples that are being acknowledged. There’s no single fix to this problem, but seeing Dutcher strut on stage at the top of the evening to acknowledge the presence of his people, in his language, in his traditional garb, is a damn good start. Bravo. Simultaneous to Dutcher’s presence on stage was the Mi’kmaw dancer Sarah Prosper, performing within the audience on the main floor. The effect of Dutcher’s song, and Prosper’s dance was a profound sense of presence, of hereness, that underscored the TSO’s Canadian identity which might otherwise be lost in the Eurocentric heritage of the music it programs. This sense of place was transferred seamlessly from the land acknowledgement to the first item on the program, Oskar Worawetz’s Carnival Overture, as a jovial prelude to Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Morawetz earned his Bachelor of Music from the University of Toronto, where he went on to teach composition from 1946 to 1982. His fairly frequent appearances on TSO programs - the last time being November 19th, 2021, for which I wrote the program notes to his colourful Sinfonietta for Winds and Percussion - is another nudge as to why the TSO matters in the cultivation and preservation of Canadian compositional heritage.
Yo-Yo Ma and Gustavo Gimeno | Photo by Jag Gundu : Toronto Symphony Orchestra
The stringencies of this music make sense best against the backdrop of absolute artistic freedom – that freedom is what this program celebrates – and the Symphonic Dances is as vividly fluorescent a backdrop as you’ll see performed by an orchestra. From the finger snapping, to the tutti cries of “Mambo!”, to the furious rhythmic changes in the percussions section, to the various skirmishes in the string sections, the carnival figures in the brass section, the taunting woodwinds that give way to the pell-mell of a swinging jazz number of the “Cool” Fugue in the seventh movement—this is as much fun as the TSO could fit into 22 minutes of music.
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra | Photo by Jag Gundu : Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Yo-Yo Ma. Everything you’ve heard about the gravitational pull of his aura on stage is true. The second half of the program began again with Dutcher, this time accompanied by Yo-Yo Ma and orchestra to perform Honour Song by Mi'kmaw elder and composer George Paul. The most astounding thing of seeing Yo-Yo Ma on stage is how it is he still manages – despite the ubiquity of his fame – to disappear into the collaboration with Dutcher. Their relationship began at a concert at Montreal’s Maison symphonique in 2018 when Dutcher was invited as a guest artist to close out Yo-Yo Ma’s performance of the complete Bach solo cello suites. Their compatibility on stage is a seamless revelry in that aforementioned backdrop of absolute artistic freedom. Singing again in the Mi’Kmaq language, Dutcher’s performance carried a simplicity and earnest fragility that was in complete dialogue with Yo-Yo Ma’s cello, a conversation which concluded with an emphatic “TAHO!” from all on stage.
Yo-Yo Ma and Jeremy Dutcher | Photo by Jag Gundu : Toronto Symphony Orchestra
The program was rounded out with Dvorák’s Cello Concerto in B Minor, an excellent choice to spotlight that curious intimacy which a musician of Yo-Yo Ma’s notoriety is able to establish on stage. Not only are you hanging on every note, but on every gesture: a sly wink to the front row in between movements, half-turning to wave at the orchestra after the first movement, casually yanking off a loose hair on his bow—our attention was rapt, and he engaged it in kind. He is a celebrity, and like all celebrities, he knows every eye and ear in the hall is falling on him - even during that long opening passage by the orchestra while he sat by waiting for the cello’s entry – and so in this waiting he struck a secret dialogue with the audience that encouraged a collaborative and active listening. Listening to the closing stretch of this concerto, you can’t help but wish the composer had heeded an early recommendation. After composing a first draft of the concerto, Dvorák passed it off to cellist Hanuš Wihan for commentary and Wihan suggested an addition that would have been perfect for an artistry like Yo-Yo Ma’s: a protracted cadenza at the tail end of the Finale. Instead, the composer opted for a more colourful finish – articulated with precision and sincerity Gimeno and company – with a diminuendo tapering into pp on the solo instrument, which the orchestra responds to with a maestoso burst to the end.
Gustavo Gimeno and Yo-Yo Ma | Photo by Jag Gundu : Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the concert, aside from Yo-Yo Ma’s grace and gravity on stage, was that it was an all-North American affair (Dvorák composed the concerto in America). And, half of the items on this program have a specifically Canadian origin. While the first century of the TSO’s existence has relied largely on the import of European artists and attention, the next century has to be one which places an emphasis on the people here, and the music of the people who are alive and working now. Yes, the demographic of the audience for this absolutely packed house is still overwhelmingly white and over the age of 60, but demographic change typically lags far behind even the most ambitious programming and initiatives. This gala experience seems to have been curated to both meet the gaze of the demographic profile that the TSO has relied on since its inception, but also to open its doors even wider to the folks who have not been catered to previously. In his Issue 7 interview with smART Magazine, Gimeno noted that, “I’ve discovered, and am still learning, that there is not just one Toronto, there are many Torontos.” This program, along with the organisation’s recent engagements with local communities, underscores a tremendous effort being made to reflect these various cultural intersections that make make Toronto Tkaronto
Yo-Yo Ma and Gustavo Gimeno | Photo by Jag Gundu : Toronto Symphony Orchestra