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SCRUTINY | Gimeno And TSO Find Favour With Varied Program Anchored By Beethoven’s Inimitable 5th

By Arthur Kaptainis on March 23, 2023

Gustavo Gimeno conducts the TSO (Photo: Stuart Lowe); Beethoven (Public domain image)
Gustavo Gimeno conducts the TSO (Photo: Stuart Lowe); Beethoven (Public domain image)

Brian Harman: Madrigal. Schumann: Cello Concerto. Ligeti: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra. Iman Habibi: Jeder Baum spricht. Beethoven: Symphony No. 5. Jean-Guihen Queyras, cello. Gustavo Gimeno, conductor. Continues to March 26, 2023. Tickets here.

There is much talk these days of diversity in the concert hall. On Wednesday, Gustavo Gimeno led the Toronto Symphony Orchestra through a program that was diverse in the purest musical sense, to the apparent satisfaction of a sizable crowd in Roy Thomson Hall.

The anchor tenant of the evening was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It had its usual positive effect, though not without a touch of disorder in the opening minute (and the repeat). Apparently striving for leapfrogging energy, Gimeno all but ignored the fermatas that follow the statements of the four-note motive and adopted a fast tempo that might have taken the players, as well as the listeners, by surprise.

In the Andante also (yes, I know, con moto) the pace seemed more of a trot than a walk — lyrical commentary by the fine TSO winds notwithstanding. High velocity was better suited to the Scherzo and Trio. Strings sounded well drilled in the latter.

Best was the finale, which started with a brass fanfare of the utmost splendour. Timpani crackled nicely at the end. Gimeno captured the essential heroism of this movement. I still predict better articulation and a more cogent sound in the three repeats (four, counting the Relaxed Performance of Saturday morning).

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

Of course Beethoven came at the end and of course there was a standing ovation. It was more surprising to see people on their feet for the Concerto for Cello and Orchestra by the late Hungarian modernist György Ligeti. This 16-minute work of 1966 is about as minimal as can be, starting with an eight-p pianissimo and not often moving north of the two-p variety. Each of its two movements unfolds at the same tempo (not that a pulse is easily detected).

Most of the whispering is dissonant, but remarkably evocative as rendered by the Montreal-born Frenchman Jean-Guihen Queyras. Extended techniques were aesthetically pertinent. The gritty glissandi of the cadenza will do as an example. Nor were the TSO players relegated to the background, for this is very much an avant-garde concerto for orchestra. Gimeno was an excellent stage manager. It is difficult to characterize this fascinating score with one word. “Unease” was the suggestion of my fellow concertgoer.

In the first half Queyras was heard in Schumann’s Cello Concerto. The finale was suitably extroverted but the first two movements, elegant as they were, sounded careful and understated. I wonder if the composer might not have been well advised to add “nor too slow” to the “not too fast” indication of the first movement.

The Schumann rounded off a 30-minute first “half” that began with Brian Harman’s Madrigal, one of the many brief Celebration Preludes the TSO has commissioned to honour its centenary. A tribute to a song by Barbara Strozzi (1619-77), it included for some reason a chaotic passage for strings. Another novelty was Jeder Baum spricht, an engaging five-minute overture written in a bold style reminiscent of John Williams. The Iranian-Canadian composer, Iman Habibi, declares in his program notes that the work is a “reflection on the climate catastrophe…written in dialogue with Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies.” We shall have to take his word for it.


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Arthur Kaptainis
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