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Ludwig Van
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SCRUTINY | An Auspicious Start As New Musical Director Gustavo Gimeno Takes Over The TSO Podium

By Stephan Bonfield on October 10, 2019

Gustavo Gimeno brings his strong sense of rhythmic, pulsative musicality, along with a supple freedom to his new role as the TSO’s musical director in an interesting and even provocative evening of music.

Gustavo Gimeno conducts the TSO as Beatrice Rana plays piano
Gustavo Gimeno conducts the TSO as Beatrice Rana plays piano (Photo : Jag Gundu)

Guillaume Connesson: Aleph: Danse symphonique (TSO Co-commission); Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3; Tchaikovsky: The Tempest Fantasy-Overture; Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2. Gustavo Gimeno, conductor; Beatrice Rana, piano, Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Roy Thomson Hall, 8 p.m., Oct. 9, 2019.

As conductor Gustavo Gimeno makes his debut, there is curiosity, interest and speculation about this relative newcomer to the podium, someone who is filled with much-needed youth and many artistic ideas which he eagerly brings to his new job as the Toronto Symphony Orchestra‘s brand new music director. And the TSO, both as orchestra and organization, seems ready for him.

Mostly, there is a lot of warmth from Toronto classical music fans sent towards the former percussionist of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, who is now bringing a thoughtful and often very charming personality to the music director’s position. This is a good hire for the TSO on many levels, but core among the many strengths Gimeno brings is his strong sense of rhythmic, pulsative musicality, a key part of the framework from which he tends to work and view musical life. Included in it all is an equally strong sense of supple freedom and when to relax rhythmic control. All of these building blocks played strong roles in Gimeno’s debut and were on clear display Wednesday night at Roy Thomson Hall.

Of course, the end of June marked Gimeno’s true inaugural outing after the announcement of his music directorship, when he conducted the Suite from The Firebird (1945) by Stravinsky and Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony No. 1, which could scarcely be called a challenging evening of conducting, but Wednesday night was the very opposite. It was a night of ferocious, interesting and even provocative music-making — a truly auspicious start for Maestro Gimeno’s Toronto years.

Gustavo Gimeno conducts the TSO
Gustavo Gimeno conducts the TSO (Photo : Jag Gundu)

The marquis work on offering was Ravel’s “Suite No. 2” from Daphnis and Chloé but others may be more likely to state it was the delightful, occasionally acerbic Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3, featuring the young and remarkable, rising star Italian soloist Beatrice Rana.

But before we get to the Prokofiev concerto, it was the Ravel that truly stole the show in the concert’s second half and entirely so. Vibrant, often astonishing and miraculous, the TSO provided numerous lucid passages of glorious abstract soundscaping filled with gossamer brushwork, which was elsewhere easily offset with tremendous percussive accents and multilayered sonic textures. Here was Ravel at his most opulent, his most outgoing personality channelled by Gimeno and the TSO.

Divided into three movements, the opening “Lever du jour” (Daybreak) features some of the most famous and memorable orchestral scene painting in the entire repertoire. Scarcely conducting, keeping the mood free and open for the orchestra’s inner impressions to take hold, this was some of the most striking music-making all night, and Gimeno esteemed it all correctly and in perfect balance.

While the second movement “Pantomime” stood entirely on its own and for a change, not as programmatic filler bridging to the anticipated third movement “Danse générale”, there was also a sense of seamlessness to Gimeno’s direction that gave the suite the unbarred nuance it needed throughout. The suite’s spontaneous and entirely uncalculated mood sustained a powerful emotive elasticity that never strayed once from the TSO’s sights right up until the very end.

Similar in mood and texture, but cast in late Romantic vocabulary was the rarely heard entry piece which led off the second half — a beautiful performance of Tchaikovsky’s The Tempest Fantasy-Overture, Op. 1, which certainly served as appetizer to the TSO’s eagerly anticipated Daphnis and Chloé Suite No. 2. A long work, complicated in programmatic storytelling, it was nevertheless a memorable and satisfying encounter with this rare gem, showcasing the fantasy elements equally well with the composer’s unequalled lyrical penchant for colourful orchestration.

Beatrice Rana plays with the TSO
Beatrice Rana plays with the TSO (Photo : Jag Gundu)

The concert’s first half was slightly less successful on only two counts. The Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 is a very popular work these days and is performed widely, but it often remains an elusive piece lurking somewhere in the shadows beyond the grasp of interpretive success. Mostly, conductors and pianists alike view the work’s complexities in terms of its many virtuoso rhythmic elements complemented by piquant orchestral colour, while the broader structural and harmonic scaffolding is frequently left unexplored.

Pianist Beatrice Rana lacks in no department of musicianship and technical ability. She plays effortlessly, and alongside her encore (the Chopin Etude Opus 25, No. 5 in F major) she displays very readily the one side of her musical character which embodies a graceful delicatissimo. But there is a fearless other side to her musical stage presence too, one which takes Prokofiev to his most motoric extent possible. Rana gave a virtuoso treatment of the C major concerto and with considerable facility, but never over-the-top, to my relief, like other young contemporary pianists.

Perhaps it was not the most harmonic treatment one might wish to hear and the colouristic possibilities that are spectrally ensconced in the music could occasionally come off as restrained. It was likewise so in the orchestra, which seemed preoccupied with playing the rhythmic cells with a scrupulous fidelity outside of all other musical considerations. It was fine to hear such rhythmic accuracy, well directed and executed, but more subtlety was needed from time to time.

While there certainly wasn’t anything intrinsically wrong with the performance in terms of musicianship, effort, rhythmic vitality or sound world interpretation that could fall within the realm of reasonable performance of Prokofiev’s masterpiece, there was nevertheless something missing from the spectral sound world and overall structural coherence of the work in Wednesday night’s performance. In spite of moments where the intricate textures within the orchestra and many of the dialogues between piano and instrumental chamber groups could often be a little rhythmically uneven together, the performance was definitively a good time, and an impressive display.

Also on the program was the ebullient, fifteen-minute TSO co-commissioned symphonic poem Aleph: Danse symphonique by French composer Guillaume Connesso. Aleph comprises the first part of the composer’s Cosmic Trilogy, an orchestral triptych including Une lueur dans l’âge sombre (A Glimmer in the Age of Darkness) (2005) and Supernova (1997). These works purport to tell nothing less than the history of the universe in vignettes from the Big Bang to a Supernova, i.e., a cataclysmic death of a star.

Connesson’s “huge dance of life and energy on the beginning of the universe” was seized with sonic gusto by the orchestra but again, there were minor moments where textural coherence was not quite as precise as it could be, similar to certain moments of the concert’s first half.

Still, it didn’t matter. Here was another intelligently programmed, unified evening of engaging music-making. The orchestra is filled with a glowing optimism and is throwing itself behind its new conductor, seemingly without hesitation. The rest is just details — small musical points to be addressed during the coming years of the organization’s bright future, as the TSO continues to stake its claim as one of the finest orchestras in North America.

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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 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.
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