Toronto Symphony Orchestra: Jimmy López Bellido: Synesthésie; Ravel: Rapsodie espagnole; Ravel: Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (Seong-Jin Cho, piano); Scriabin: The Poem of Ecstasy. Gustavo Gimeno, conductor; Roy Thomson Hall, Sept. 28, 2023. Continues to September 30; tickets here.
Gustavo Gimeno and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra have started the season with an emphasis on brilliant early-20th-century repertoire, much of it from French and Russian sources. The players and their music director proved equal to its iridescent demands Thursday night in Roy Thomson Hall.
With so much colour rendered so vividly, it was hard to pick a highlight. The concert certainly came to an affirmative conclusion with Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy, a 22-minute essay in excess that did not, remarkably enough, sound excessive. Trumpets (led by a guest from the Nashville Symphony, William Leathers) cut through the orchestral fabric brightly but without a corrosive edge. The climax near the end (organ included) was grand, not grotesque. By keeping textures transparent and rhythms distinct, Gimeno maintained a sense of dramatic narrative in music that can sound static in its magnitude.
Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, in the first half, was seductive mostly at lower dynamic levels. Cary Ebli on English horn rightly got the first bow. There were many other fine wind solos. Strings were silky and balanced in the Prélude à la nuit. Was the steady Habanera rhythm a bit too slow? Siesta time, indeed. Gimeno is Spanish, so perhaps we should give him the benefit of the doubt.
There was a star soloist, Seong-Jin Cho, who was assaying Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand for the first time. An artist of great refinement, this 29-year-old Korean rendered the scherzando passages with impeccable clarity and fashioned an impressive, gradual crescendo in the second cadenza.
He did all this, of course, without any recourse to his right hand, unless we count grabbing the side of the Steinway while executing an upward glissando with the left. I expect the first cadenza, with its thunderous low notes, will be even more dramatic in the repeat performances Friday and Saturday.
Cheers for this boyishly handsome pianist were substantial before the performance. You can imagine the situation after. As an encore Cho offered his fans a slow, songful and burnished rendition of Liszt’s Sonetto 104 del Petrarca.
The refined contribution of Gimeno and the orchestra to the concerto should not be overlooked. They sounded superb also in the opening selection, Synesthésie, by the Peruvian composer Jimmy López Bellido, which was heard in its North American premiere. Surveying the five senses in less than 10 minutes, the piece varied widely in instrumental resources but remained somehow united in its imaginative approach.
Four percussionists got things started with a rollicking representation of touch, followed by dense, dissonant strings denoting smell. Taste was more sour than sweet. As Bellido pointed out in his program note, a musical realization of audition is necessarily self-referential. His solution was to maximize contrast with brass in the lead. A full-orchestra treatment of vision (in both senses of the word) ended the suite impressively. Gimeno appears to be interested in opening TSO contemporary programming to the world.
The concert was moderately well attended. Nicely populated last week, the choir loft sat sadly empty, like a graveyard. The TSO needs to do something with these seats. Selling them at student prices is an obvious option.
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