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Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | Toronto Symphony Goes In Pistols Blazing With Gemma New

By Stephan Bonfield on March 10, 2019

Gemma New (Photo: Fred Stucker)
Conductor Gemma New makes her TSO debut with Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and keeps it open enough to let your imagination run wild. (Photo: Fred Stucker)

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gemma New. At Roy Thomson Hall. Saturday, March 9.

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony may be one of the most performed in the genre of the 20th century, but it is also surely the most misunderstood.  When New Zealand-born conductor Gemma New, who is Music Director of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, took the reins of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra last night to conduct it, she also took on the unenviable task of confronting the many-worlds view of how to interpret the work without falling into ambiguous territory.

Happily, New resisted some of the non-descript approaches we often hear many conductors taking with the work, but even better, she didn’t cave in to pat answers either and denied giving us a Fifth of mindless optimism.  But more on all that later.

Abigail Richardson-Schulte’s GO! for orchestra, commissioned by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra for the 2012 Olympics, led off the concert — a tone poem describing a runner’s pre-race jitters as she mentally prepares at the chalk-line, right up until the moment the starting pistol fires.  It’s a good piece, but I would prefer to hear an entire half of a concert devoted to Richardson-Schulte’s music so I can enjoy more of her imaginative talents in rhythm, orchestration and her gift for creating lucid motive.

Also on the program was the popular Mozart Concerto for Flute, Harp and Orchestra, premiered in 1778 during one of Mozart’s stays in Paris.  Essentially a sinfonia concertante, an elegant and very popular chamber medium in Paris at the time, the work is considered light listening fare. That is a shame: often ignored are the interpretively challenging parts for both solo instruments, which were handled with uncommon spectral mastery by Heidi Van Hoesen Gorton, the TSO’s Principal Harp, and Kelly Zimba, TSO principal flute.

Considering that the chamber work is written for a small acoustic, Gemma New’s slower, spacious opening-tempo Allegro proved felicitous in cavernous Roy Thomson Hall for creating stellar moments of harmonic, interactive blend. The performance was often sublime, so warm and clear, bright with Parisian effect and flushed with richly-toned sensibility, that by the end of the three movements there could be no doubt the two soloists and TSO ensemble had pulled off a definitive musical highlight of the entire season.

Van Hoesen Gorton and Zimba made an excellent pairing. They have recently formed their own duo Steel6ix, and I look forward to hearing them together in future recitals. Frankly, I don’t think I want to hear Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp again unless it is played at least as well as what we heard, i.e., not treated as pop music, but approached with an understanding of what Mozart was trying to do with this rare combination of instruments. How lucky we were to hear this performance.

The essential spirit of these robust performances effectively contrasted the grim nihilism that followed in the concert’s second half.  Such was the murderous backdrop of the first Stalinist purges, the ominous threat under which Shostakovich premiered his Fifth Symphony in 1937.  I can’t even imagine the city of “Leningrad” in that era, people disappearing in the middle of the night never to be seen again, Shostakovich keeping a suitcase packed under his bed for three months in case the secret police came for him after he was forced to recant the more dissonant compositional directions he had taken in his Fourth and the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District.

Under editorial pressure from the newspaper Pravda, whether written by apparatchiks or even Stalin himself who reportedly denounced Lady Macbeth for its veiled criticism of communism, Shostakovich returned to an older style affecting a more tonal arc throughout.  However, the composer deliberately despoiled the Fifth and his other symphonies which followed it with a bitter pungency of grafted, marring dissonant chords affixed to nearly every neo-classical phrase throughout each movement’s broader structure.

Shostakovich began a new phase of hidden radical commentary with the Fifth, a work muffled with the agonies of a people trapped inside a world so repugnant that the only way for the composer to stay alive was by disguising artistic motive and intent.  In effect, Shostakovich was forced to move underground in order to create a seditious art of bitter irony.

The TSO put it all on unsparing display.  The second movement’s satire of a march and trio is a send-up of government and military ostentation; the third, a tearful elegy for all those taken away — no one missed that connection at the first-ever performance.  In fact, many wept, as has often been reported.

And the finale, packed with references to an earlier song he wrote titled “Vozrozhdenije” (Resurrection/rebirth) and the traditional sounds associated with “panikhida” or what is called the Russian Orthodox Requiem, was as moving as it was jarring under Gemma New’s passionate baton.

The symphony frequently roils with violent crescendo and angularity in strings and winds with perturbed punctuations from percussion and brass, often belied by contrasting sections of a darkened interiority. Passages of mournful meditative lyricism come at a cost, inevitably contrasted by a return of unruly dissonance, particularly in the fourth movement. When those repeated high As in strings and upper winds end the symphony, and the mode shifts abruptly, insincerely, from D minor to D major, the artificiality of forced celebration is almost too much to take.

And here we come to Gemma New’s rather interesting solution to a problem most conductors don’t really want to confront.  How do you deal with these violent opposing forces in a symphony that carries so much forceful commentary in every one of its notes, bars and phrases?

The conventional answer is to ignore the problems and take the work as a kind of darkness-to-light journey, but that hasn’t really worked in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, given what seems to be lodged in the score’s embittered motives and harmonies.

But, New finds a different way, and it works.  She emphasizes the tragedy of the score but leaves the ending to sound more like an open question, neither triumphant nor bitterly ironic.  Is it a rebirth or a forced rejoicing under one of the cruellest autocrats the twentieth century had ever known?  She turns Shostakovich Fifth into The Unanswered Question, and on an existential level, the TSO makes this work extremely well.

In the end, New lets you decide the symphony’s meaning for yourself, even while allowing the timpani section to pound out its own triple forte grotesquerie during those hit-you-over-the-head final bars.  It’s brilliant, and instead of leaving me in the darkest depression, as the work inevitably has done repeatedly, the TSO performance allowed me to see that the music’s ineffable complexity can run along so many emotional directions that we cannot accept that any one interpretive message is the only truth the work can offer.

Gemma New and the TSO brought the Shostakovich Fifth to life in a way that committed wholly to the score without descending into shrill contemporary political statements. Her canny approach will induce more audiences to have emotionally vibrant realizations about this magnificent work when she conducts it again in her meteoric career.

LUDWIG VAN TORONTO

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Stephan Bonfield

Stephan Bonfield

Stephan Bonfield writes about opera and music for Ludwig Van where he reviews primarily the TSO, chamber music, Baroque and contemporary opera and assorted other genres.  He is ballet and dance critic for the Calgary Herald where he also covers Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity every summer, including the Banff International String Quartet Competition.  He is a public speaker about opera, music and dance in Canada.
Stephan Bonfield
Stephan Bonfield

Stephan Bonfield

Stephan Bonfield writes about opera and music for Ludwig Van where he reviews primarily the TSO, chamber music, Baroque and contemporary opera and assorted other genres.  He is ballet and dance critic for the Calgary Herald where he also covers Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity every summer, including the Banff International String Quartet Competition.  He is a public speaker about opera, music and dance in Canada.
Stephan Bonfield
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