Heads up, Angelenos. Toronto has its own Gustavo — Gustavo Gimeno, who in September 2020 becomes the 11th music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
Employed since 2015 by the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, the 42-year-old Spaniard has conducted only one program with the TSO and will not reappear in Roy Thomson Hall until the end of this season.
Nonetheless, the 12-member selection committee charged with finding a successor to Peter Oundjian (who gave his last concert as music director in June) has granted this relative newcomer to the profession a five-year contract that will extend his tenure to August 2025.
“I think it’s an indicator not only of our interest in Gustavo but of his interest in us,” said TSO CEO Matthew Loden, himself a recent hire. “It is also a signal that all parties recognized that we’re building something here.”
Contacted in Luxembourg, Gimeno (pronounced Hee-MAY-No) characterized his experience in Toronto in February in a program comprising Ligeti’s Concert Românesc, Dvořák’s Cello Concerto (with Johannes Moser as soloist) and Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony as something like love at first listen.
“I felt musically really at home,” he said. “And that is what I told the musicians after the last rehearsal. I felt understood, I felt relaxed. They were collaborative and open and committed. I would say that for a few days I was in heaven.”
The conductor contrasted the “refined sense of colour and French music” that characterizes his Luxembourg ensemble with the “characteristic sound with a centre and core” of the TSO.
“What they call in German Kern,” Gimeno clarified. “Warm, intense.”
The February appearance, which attracted little critical attention, was, in fact, Gimeno’s return to Roy Thomson Hall. His first visit to the facility early in the century was as a percussionist in the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra as conducted by Riccardo Chailly.
Gimeno spent 11 years as a rank-and-file member of this illustrious ensemble before making a mid-career switch with the encouragement of Mariss Jansons, chief conductor of the Concertgebouw from 2004 to 2015. Another source of support was Claudio Abbado.
“Very often I would go literally from the Concertgebouw to the other side of the street to the conservatoire for conducting lessons,” Gimeno recalled. Son of a clarinettist in his native Valencia, Gimeno had dreamt of conducting since he was a boy.
Apart from the opportunity to watch the world’s most famous conductors at work, the Concertgebouw experience gave Gimeno what he regards as a thorough education in symphonic mechanics. “I think I know an orchestra inside out because I’ve seen everything from the stage managers who put the instruments on stage and the librarians to the orchestra CEO,” he said.
Gimeno could not say precisely when he knew he was being considered for the Toronto position, but it was not hard to put two and two together when TSO interim CEO Gary Hanson paid visits to hear him in Cleveland and Boston.
“Gary absolutely was someone who led the charge in this search,” Loden said of this veteran Canadian orchestra executive.
Gimeno regards himself as a wide-bandwidth maestro. “I can say I love Mahler and Bruckner, Stravinsky and Mozart,” he said. “And Verdi. And opera in general. And the First Viennese School and Schumann and Schubert.”
No point in asking about the music he does not like.
“If you don’t like something, that means you should study even harder,” is how Gimeno summarizes his philosophy.
As a resident of Amsterdam, Gimeno has been exposed to historically informed performance and such noted practitioners of the style as Frans Brüggen, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Ton Koopman, Gustav Leonhardt and Trevor Pinnock.
While his guest appearances with such ensembles as the Cleveland Orchestra, London Philharmonic and Swedish Radio Orchestra mostly involve late-romantic music – including, this season, a good deal of Tchaikovsky — he has also worked with the rearward-looking Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century. Gimeno cites the opening of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 (“Scottish”) as an example of a blend best achieved with period instruments. (Gramophone magazine has posted a Gimeno-led performance of this work from 2017.)
“I feel very much the influence of historically informed practice, as they call it,” Gimeno said. In this, he might differ from both Oundjian and Sir Andrew Davis, who serves as TSO interim artistic director this season and next.
Another benefit of Amsterdam residency was exposure to new music. While it is too early to be specific about his programming intentions, the conductor was able to name R. Murray Schafer and Samy Moussa as Canadian composers of interest. He has been listening to music by TSO affiliate composer Emilie LeBel.
“I am aware of the fact that TSO is extremely active with new music and Canadian music,” Gimeno said. “And I am happy to participate, contribute to this and conduct this music in the future.”
Gimeno has no short-term plans to move from Amsterdam, where his seven-year-old daughter is immersed in the Dutch school system and naturally fluent in that language. She also speaks Italian with her mother and indeed tends to answer her father’s questions in Spanish in Italian.
“You never know,” Gimeno said. “Toronto is a vibrant city, and my wife wants to get to know it. But it is too early to plan the future in that sense.”
It is not too early to add French to his arsenal of languages (which includes Dutch). Gimeno now travels with his language textbooks.
“That has been a longtime dream,” he commented. “I can communicate a little bit in French, which was not the case two years ago.”
Of course, there are many languages in Toronto, a metropolis that outsizes many world capitals, including Amsterdam.
“Toronto is an extremely big city,” Gimeno said. “On the other hand, because of that variety, those languages, those communities, that makes it also very special.
“Where there is a challenge, this can mean as well something positive. This should be a point of research, motivation and discovery for us. There is something there to investigate, to make people see the TSO as part of their life. To connect with the audience in the best possible way.”
This great endeavour is in future tense: Torontonians will not hear Gimeno again before June 29, 2019, when he conducts Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite in the 1945 version as well as Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 (“Classical”) and Sibelius’s Violin Concerto with Jonathan Crow as soloist.
The TSO concertmaster, who was on the selection committee, praised Gimeno’s “musical charisma and technical ability” in a statement issued by the orchestra. “He pulls you into the musical moment.”
Gimeno conducts with a baton and generally uses a score, although in February he led the Beethoven from memory.
“I’ve seen conductors conducing by heart, but they are lost in their own thoughts,” he commented. “Chailly and [Andris] Nelsons always have a score in front of them and they are extremely communicative.”
While Roy Thomson Hall is not as troublesome acoustically as some allege, it is seldom mentioned in the same breath as the Concertgebouw, the great Amsterdam temple of 1888.
“I’m going to tell you something that will shock you, so be prepared,” Gimeno said. “The Concertgebouw sounds very beautiful when you are in the audience listing to an orchestra. On the stage it is the most difficult hall in the world.
“Because of its resonance, and because distances between sections are huge, [this] makes ensemble playing extremely complicated. I know when you are listening to a concert in the Concertgebouw it sounds so beautiful, so people cannot imagine that musicians do not hear each other properly.
“There is constant feeling of insecurity or risk, especially when you do more active and rhythmic music. Stravinsky, for example. Maybe doing Bruckner is the nicest.
“We know the Concertgebouw sounds wonderful. But it also has complications. It might be more of a pleasure to do Stravinsky in Roy Thomson Hall.”
Acoustics aside, Gimeno has a positive feeling about the wraparound design of the glassy palace on Simcoe Street.
“Something I value very much in a hall is the atmosphere,” he said. “And I think that it has a nice vibe. I like halls like RTH where you feel the audience around you, as being part of the music making, participating in an active way.”
After years of Oundjian, music-loving Torontonians have another rare surname to contend with. They can reflect on the fact that both the third and fourth largest cities in North America — Los Angeles and Toronto — will have orchestras led by conductors named Gustavo.
By the purest of coincidences, the Gustavos exchanged texts last week on the occasion of an appearance by Dudamel with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra at the Luxembourg Philharmonie. They also had dinner in July when Gimeno led the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl.
“This is a guy I love,” Gimeno said of his first-namesake. “A very generous person.”
Dudamel became known as “the Dude.” It is hard to think of a comparably obvious reduction of Gimeno. And “Gus” seems out of character for a conductor.
Perhaps different communities will find different nicknames.
“Someone told me when I was in Toronto in February, ‘There is not one Toronto, there are many,’” Gimeno said. “That is a challenge and hopefully we can turn it into something positive. But that takes time and understanding and work.”