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SCRUTINY | Toronto Symphony Orchestra Closes Classical Season With A Triumphant Beethoven 9th

By Joseph So on June 16, 2022

Gustavo Gimeno with the TSO, vocal soloists and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir perform Beethoven's Ode to Joy (Image courtesy of the TSO)
Gustavo Gimeno with the TSO, vocal soloists and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir perform Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (Image courtesy of the TSO)

Bekah Simms: Bite: Roydon Tse: Unrelenting Sorrow: Adam Scime: A Dream of Refuge / Beethoven Ninth Symphony: Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Gustavo Gimeno, conductor: Angela Meade, sop., Rihab Chaieb, mezz., Issachah Savage, ten., Ryan Speedo Green, bass-bar.; Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Roy Thomson Hall, June 15, 2022. Repeats June 16, 18 & 19. Tickets here.

The 2021-22 season has been a challenging one for performing arts organizations, to put it mildly. With COVID-19 finally loosening its grip on our lives, in-person performances resumed a few months ago, and it’s gathering steam. Now it is mid-June and the classical programming of the TSO is coming to an end.

I attended the first of four performances of this final run given by the TSO last evening. Fittingly, the centrepiece was Beethoven’s Ninth, the Choral Symphony. Given that the world seems to be in chaos, with the war in Ukraine, numerous discords worldwide, not to mention the long shadow of the lingering pandemic, the spiritually uplifting Beethoven Ninth is an inspired choice.

It was gratifying to see a very good turnout, among the best I’ve witnessed since in-person performances resumed. Still far from sold-out, but given that there are four performances, attendance was good. Those that were there were die-hard music lovers, very enthusiastic and appreciative of hearing great music in person once again.

The first half consisted of three short works by three Canadians, all world premieres and TSO NextGen commissions. These represent the musical reflections/musings on the pandemic by the composers. To be sure, all are stylistically “new music” with its distinctive sonorities, angular, percussive, and dissonant, reflecting the challenges of COVID on the physical and emotional self. Unfailingly, all three works deliver powerful emotional statements, and I found myself moved. And, I’m a self-professed traditionalist when it comes to music!

I was particularly struck by Roydon Tse’s Unrelenting Sorrow: “(it) captures the overwhelming sense of sorrow that lingers when a loved one passes…. Anger, frustration, nostalgia, resignation. The pain can seem unceasing and unrelenting.” His orchestration expresses all these emotions well, including the very final phrases that show a glimmer of hope. A work that I would like to hear again.

Vocalists performing Beethoven's 9th Symphony with the TSO (Image courtesy of the TSO)
Vocalists performing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with the TSO (Image courtesy of the TSO)

Beethoven 9th, the centrepiece of the evening, took up the whole second half. Composed between 1822-24, the work is nearly two hundred years old. It was ground-breaking in its time, being the first symphony that incorporate choral forces and solo voices. The TSO has assembled a very fine quartet of soloists in soprano Angela Meade, mezzo Rihab Chaieb, tenor Issachah Savage and bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green.

The program notes mentions that the June 15 performance marks the 100th complete performance of the work by the TSO, a happy coincidence that it also marks the Orchestra’s 100th anniversary celebration. I won’t attempt a detailed analysis of the performance, except to say that it was a remarkable rendition, one that will stay in my memory bank. I found myself transfixed through the whole 65 minutes or so.

Maestro Gustavo Gimeno is a Beethoven specialist, and he lived up to his reputation. He led the TSO forces in an unforgettable reading of the score, conducting with a surfeit of energy and passion, yet full of nuances and refinement, super-powerful but never bombastic. The second movement, my favourite, gave me goosebumps under the baton of Gimeno, and the TS forces responded to him splendidly. As a voice fancier, I was of course looking forward to the Ode to Joy, here taken by four outstanding soloists, and they did not disappoint. Never mind that Beethoven wrote vocal lines like he wrote for instruments — none other than Verdi criticized Beethoven’s writing for the solo voice. O well…

Ryan Speedo Green kicked off the proceedings impressively, with his warm and ample bass-baritone filling Roy Thomson Hall with ease. Issachah Savage and his ringing tenor brought the requisite heroic heft in his moments to shine. Beethoven was not quite fair to the women soloists, and they didn’t have solo turns. Angela Meade managed the soprano’s best moments, rising to a high B dolcissimo as expected. Canadian mezzo Rihab Chaieb made a welcome return to Toronto as the alto soloist. Let’s face it — Beethoven didn’t give her much to do, as alto has only inner melodies to sing, but Chaieb with her beautiful mezzo held her own.

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, a group that I call Canada’s National Treasure, was in fabulous form. Apparently
they collectively decided to sing with their masks on, and it didn’t hurt one bit — they sounded terrific! Three more performances, on June 16 and 18 at 8 p.m., and June 19 at 3 p.m., Roy Thomson Hall. Soul-nourishing music and highly recommended.

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Joseph So
Joseph So
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