SCRUTINY | TSO Season Opener Agreeable But Without Gravitas

By Arthur Kaptainis on September 22, 2022

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

Kevin Lau: The Story of the Dragon Gate: Celebration Prelude (World Première/TSO Commission); Lera Auerbach: Icarus; Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2; Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade. Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Gustavo Gimeno, conductor; Bruce Liu, piano; Jonathan Crow, violin. Roy Thomson Hall Sept. 21, 22 & 24, 2022, 8 p.m. Tickets here.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is in the midst of its 100th anniversary, give or take a season. Gustavo Gimeno led a concert Wednesday in Roy Thomson Hall that proved agreeable in most particulars without summoning the gravitas of a centennial opening night.

The main attraction was Bruce Liu, the Montrealer who last year won the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. No serious listener would dispute the legitimacy of the victory or his status as a major talent. Many of Liu’s prizewinning virtues were on display in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2: flexible tempos, pearly tone, expert pedal technique and formidable digital exactitude.

Alas, not all of his expressive good intentions, on this occasion, made it past the stage apron. The sound was subdued, and the style introverted — abundant rubato notwithstanding. One had the sense of watching a high-wire act from a respectful distance.

Bruce Liu plays with the TSO (Photo: Jag Gundu)
Bruce Liu plays with the TSO (Photo: Jag Gundu)

Holding his arms high, Gimeno had to have his wits about him to adapt to all the slowdowns and accelerations. The finale earned the usual standing ovation, which Liu rewarded with a scampering performance of Chopin’s Etude Op. 10 No. 5 (“Black Keys”).

The evening had started with Kevin Lau’s The Story of the Dragon Gate, a celebration prelude commissioned by the orchestra. It packed quite a few cinematic devices into its three minutes.

Icarus, a 12-minute tone poem by the Russian-born American Lera Auerbach, was more original but not a great deal more appealing. A central episode of climbing figures seemed to reference the efforts of the unlucky title character to fly sunward. Given the heaviness of the orchestration, it is a wonder he got off the ground.

After intermission, we heard Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade in its pops-friendly oriental splendour. Just about all the principals are called on to speak in this four-movement fantasy. They played well, and often freely, presumably with Gimeno’s permission and certainly in keeping with the rhapsodic nature of the piece.

First among soloists, of course, was concertmaster Jonathan Crow, who impersonated the storyteller of the title with a fetching combination of sweetness and resolve. The full orchestra sounded cohesive, the percussion by no means hidden.

It was all good to hear, but the beginning of a post-pandemic season — we shall take Joe Biden’s word for it — required music of a little more import than what this program offered.

Not that the three-quarters crowd was disappointed, to judge by the clapping between movements. There are repeat performances on Thursday and Saturday at 8 p.m. There is also a TSO open house Saturday starting at 10 a.m., followed at 2 p.m. by a free concert featuring single movements from the Chopin and the Rimsky-Korsakov, among other works.

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