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SCRUTINY | Moussa Concerto Sounds Strong In Toronto Symphony Orchestra Premiere, Paired With Playful Don Quixote

By Arthur Kaptainis on April 4, 2024

Gustavo Gimeno conducts the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on April 3, 2024 (Photo: Allan Cabral)
Gustavo Gimeno conducts the Toronto Symphony Orchestra with trombone soloist Jörgen van Rijen on April 3, 2024 (Photo: Allan Cabral)

Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Ligeti: Lontano. Wagner: Prelude to Act 1 of Parsifal. Samy Moussa: Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra “Yericho” (Jörgen van Rijen, soloist). Strauss: Don Quixote (Joseph Johnson, cello; Rémi Pelletier, viola). Gustavo Gimeno, conductor. Roy Thomson Hall on April 3, 2024. Repeats April 6 at 8 p.m. tickets here.

Gustavo Gimeno has made new works a priority for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, with inconsistent returns at the box office. Roy Thomson Hall was not full Wednesday for the North American premiere of Samy Moussa’s Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra but the applause was robust and sustained.

Subtitled “Yericho,” the 25-minute work references Jericho with seven brass instruments (solo trombone, plus four horns and two trumpets) that correspond to the shofars (ram horns) that brought the walls tumbling down. Though not without its passages of calm, the score was substantially in forte-to-fortissimo mode and equal to the implications of the Biblical story.

The unusual Italian indication attached to the first of seven movements was inesorabile, inexorable. Sawing violas got things started in a big way. Other instruments became involved, including, of course, the trombone. Much elaborate articulation and rapid tonguing was required. Jörgen van Rijen, principal trombone of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, was certainly up to the job. But he spoke less often alone, as a traditional soloist, than in a spirit of what might be called aggressive cooperation with the orchestra. This was not a call-and-response concerto.

Gustavo Gimeno conducts the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on April 3, 2024 (Photo: Allan Cabral)
Gustavo Gimeno conducts the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on April 3, 2024 (Photo: Allan Cabral)

As in other Moussa works, the harmonic language was tonal but serious and distinctive. Rising scalar patterns suggested becoming rather than arrival. The palette included a prominent (and, arguably, sacred) part for the organ, making amends for the missing woodwinds. Jonathan Oldengarm was the uncredited player.

There was also a brief passage for solo double bass (Jeffrey Beecher). These and other inventions worked well. If I had a reservation concerning this thoughtful score, it concerned the relative shortage of top-line motivic material. Still, this is music I want to hear again. The TSO and the Orchestre national de Lyon were the co-commissioners.

Beginning the program was György Ligeti’s Lontano, a fascinating and mostly quiet exercise in condensed polyphony and slowly shifting densities. The performance was appropriately supple and hypnotic.

Gustavo Gimeno conducts the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on April 3, 2024 (Photo: Allan Cabral)
Gustavo Gimeno conducts the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on April 3, 2024 (Photo: Allan Cabral)

Then came Wagner’s Prelude to Act 1 of Parsifal (played without a break, as was another Ligeti-Wagner diptych, of Atmosphères and the Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin, in 2022). The Parsifal music is certainly a slow-motion classic, but it has heroic elements that this static presentation mostly disregarded.

The big work after intermission was Don Quixote, Richard Strauss’s colourful rendering of the Cervantes novel. Principal cello Joseph Johnson, a soft-spoken exponent of the title role, naturally was given priority seating, but there were many other soloists, including associate principal viola Rémi Pelletier, a vivid Sancho Panza, and principal oboe Sarah Jeffrey, sweet as Dulcinea (or at least the knight-errant’s idealized notion of Dulcinea).

Gimeno kept things clear but also playful. What fun to hear so many players bringing a flock of sheep to life. Another entertaining highlight was the wind machine, the very artifice of which so nicely captures the unreality of Don Quixote’s imaginary ride through the air. The TSO was in easygoing virtuoso form, if such a thing is possible. There is a repeat performance Saturday evening.

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Arthur Kaptainis
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