Toronto Symphony Orchestra with Gustavo Gimeno, conductor; Jan Lisiecki, piano at Roy Thomson Hall April 22, 2022.
The performance last evening was the first of three performances, with Maestro Gustavo Gimeno leading the TSO forces in a program of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Tchaikovsky, plus a new work by composer Cris Derksen, not to mention a touching surprise — more about that later.
Given what the pandemic has done to the performing arts, the attendance last evening was very respectable. Not a full house to be sure, but since there are three performances it was a good turnout. There were lots of young people in the audience, likely due in part to the presence of the Toronto Youth Orchestra joining the TS in the Shostakovich. The ovations had more energy, with plenty on their feet, certainly more demonstrative than just a “hall full of old folks like us,” as a dear friend is fond of saying to me.
The show opened with the Shostakovich, with the stage absolutely jammed. I didn’t count but likely around 120 musicians. The composer got its inspiration from Kirghiz folk tunes he heard on a visit to Kyrgyzstan. Perhaps a reflection of his politics at that juncture in his life, Shostakovich melds Russian and Kyrgyz folk tunes to form a colourful and lively piece. The orchestration is unusually heavy for “folk music,” with huge volumes coming from the combined TSO-TSYO forces. A fine start to the proceedings.
After this rousing beginning, came the centerpiece — for me, that is — of the evening, Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto played by Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki. Born in Calgary to Polish parents, Lisiecki studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto with Marc Durand. I have fond memories of interviewing him when he was all of 18, in his second year at the RCM back in 2013. He had just been signed by DG, and I interviewed him at the time of the recording of his first disc of Chopin Etudes at Koerner Hall.
After a brief intermission, we heard “Parkdale: Celebration Prelude,” a very short work of about three minutes by Canadian Indigenous composer Cris Derksen. As with new music, it really takes repeated listening to come up with a full impression. Based on this very brief hearing, I can say it’s very accessible and I enjoyed it, although I do find the ending rather abrupt. I look forward to hearing it again in the future.
Now the big surprise of the evening. Maestro Gimeno spoke to the audience that Puccini’s Crisantemi would be inserted, dedicated to the people of Ukraine. Puccini composed it to honour a friend who passed away. An exquisite chamber piece, here played by the strings of a full orchestra. Gimeno requested that the audience not applaud, in honour of the suffering of the Ukrainian people. Hearing the divine score, parts of which were re-used by Puccini into Manon Lescaut, under the present context, gave me a lump in my throat. Without any cynicism on my part, I couldn’t help but wonder if this insertion was to counter the association of Tchaikovsky 5th with the Russian victory at the Siege of Leningrad in WWII. No matter, in my heart I applaud this beautiful gesture by the TSO and Maestro Gimeno.
The final piece of the evening, the longest at three-quarters of an hour, was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Not well-received in its early years, it has gone on to become one of the composer’s most popular work. I for me absolutely love the gorgeous main melody that is repeated in all four movements. Particularly wonderful was the Horn Solo in the Second Movement. Gimeno conducted with a great even and a sure hand, offering a felicitous mix of solemnity and heartfelt lyricism inherent in this monumental work. With this, the evening came to an unforgettable end.
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