Verdi: Ballet Music from Macbeth; Respighi: Feste Romane; Berio: 4 dédicaces; Rota: Selections from “Ballabili” from Il Gattopardo; Respighi: Pini di Roma. Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Gustavo Gimeno, conductor. Roy Thomson Hall, February 1, 2024.
In his New Year Greetings in the program, the TSO Music Director Gustavo Gimeno writes, “When I was a child, I had on cassette tape a recording of Respighi’s triptych of Rome-centred tone poems. The one I loved the most, and would listen to over and over again, was Roman Festivals.” Programming it was Maestro Gimeno’s, in his own words, a “love letter to Italian music.” With such an endorsement, the audience knew they were in for something special.
And special it was! On opening night, the Roy Thomson stage was full to overflowing. Some members of the brass section were strategically placed in the choir loft for that special sound effect. I only did a rough count — there were easily eighty musicians onstage. The audience was treated to a program of works by Verdi, Respighi, Berio, and Nino Rota, an all-Italian evening.
The evening opened with the ballet music from Verdi’s Macbeth, in my experience almost always cut in actual performances of the opera. Barely 10 minutes long, Maestro Gimeno led the TS forces in a brisk, rhythmically precise reading of the score, fully realizing the inherent grandeur in the piece. With such a huge orchestra, it was exciting in both volume and spirit. A terrific start.
It was followed by Feste Romane, the first of two works by Ottorino Respighi. From the first downbeat, it was a performance to savour. There was a reason why we had such a huge orchestra this evening. It needs the critical mass to do it full justice, a truly exhilarating performance destined for the memory bank. Lest you think the TSO impresses only with high decibels, not at all. It was loud, but never bombastic. In four movements, we heard a full spectrum of tone colours, from exuberant fortissimos to quiet, sublimely lyrical passages that soothe the ears. An amazing work brilliantly performed.
The second half opened with Luciano Berio’s 4 dédicacies. These four miniatures scored for large orchestra were premiered as a cycle posthumously by Pierre Boulez in the 1980s. Archetypal Berio, with a musical idiom that’s angular and abrupt, with the third piece the shrillest and the most unsettling for those of us not fond of atonality. That said, I am glad I heard it, as his work are rarely programmed.
For a complete change of pace, Berio was followed by the other extreme, selections from Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) by that king of film music and easy listening Nino Rota. Nothing musically challenging, starting with the most pleasant if somewhat banal waltz, followed by a Mazurka, and ending with a Galopp. Was it ever a gallop! Gimeno led the TS forces in the briskest tempi, and to their credit, not a note out of place.
The concert ended with the centrepiece, Respighi’s justly famous Pines of Rome, a real audience favourite. A brass-heavy piece, very grand and exciting. For me, the best part is the gorgeous Adagio, with the most glorious sounds coming from the orchestra, truly intoxicating, not to mention the magical chirping of birds at one point. I was glad the TSO saved the best for last. A great way to spend a couple of hours on a winter evening.
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