Standing ovations customarily follow a performance. The reverse occurred on Wednesday night as musicians of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra strode onstage for the launch of its 2021-2022 season, and for several compelling reasons.
Despite maintaining a public presence through online concerts, live drive-in shows and a range of community-oriented events, this was the first time the TSO had played for an in-person audience at its Roy Thomson Hall home in more than 20 months. No one seemed bothered that the show started 20 minutes late because of the ridiculous length of time it took to check patrons’ vaccination passports. This was an eager audience pumped to be pleased.
The evening also marked the first occasion that 45-year-old, Spanish-born conductor Gustavo Gimeno officially took up his baton as TSO music director, the 10th such in the orchestra’s 100-year history. As the debonair Gimeno made his entrance the continuing ovation audibly swelled. As he explained the following morning, Gimeno has had several opportunities during the pandemic to conduct in-person performances in cities on both sides of the Atlantic, but the Toronto audience’s enthusiasm and the personal realization that he was finally taking the helm of the TSO brought a lump to his throat.
“I was overwhelmed,” said Gimeno. “It was a unique and wonderful moment, as if the past 20 months had been a nightmare and now we have awoken.”
On the preliminary evidence of this week’s program, Gimeno’s precisely deployed baton can inspire the TSO to moments of exceptional musicianship. Gimeno has been clear that he’s all for mixing things up. Thus the roughly one-hour, intermissionless program — Haydn, Hindemith, Schubert and a recent composition by American composer Anthony Barfield — spanned more than 240 years of Western musical history.
Given the uncertainties of public health mandates, the concert was planned months in advance to allow for a degree of physical distancing among the players — some masked; others, like several delinquent audience members, not — and to be compact in length. A smaller orchestra limits the programming options.
Every orchestral concert nowadays has to make its bow to new work, but the choice of Barfield’s “Invictus” (Unconquered), scored for a 15-piece brass ensemble although reduced to 12 players here, proved puzzling. It was composed in the summer of 2020 as a “pièce d’occasion” addressed to a New York audience and reflecting troubled times — a horrendous pandemic death toll and Black Lives Matter — but also paying tribute to the iconic city’s resilience amidst adversity. Check the online recording of the open-air Lincoln Center Plaza premiere and you can sense its original power and imagine its impact on a citizenry stretched to the breaking point. But today, in cosy Toronto? Not so much.
Joseph Haydn’s Overture to “L’Isola disabitata” (literally, the Uninhabited Island) revealed the Austrian composer in a more emotionally enlivened, light-and-shade mood than one associates with this bastion of musical classicism. Gimeno led his orchestra through a lucidly detailed performance notable for its keen attention to dynamics.
Paul Hindemith’s “Concert Music for Brass and Strings, Op. 50” was arguably the evening’s highlight, demonstrating Gimeno’s firm grasp of a work’s architecture, founded in this case on a harmonically modernistic conversation between two contrasting orchestral sections. Given its shifting rhythmic complexities, it’s a work that can easily jump the rails, but Gimeno kept it firmly on track, meanwhile teasing out arresting details in the score that are too often lost in muddied performances.
What can one say of Franz Schubert’s overly familiar “Symphony No. 5” other than that if one were searching for a catchier title, “Mozart on My Mind” would serve very well. It’s not a bad symphony. It’s just that its youthful adulation of Mozart leaves one yearning for something more convincingly Schubertian. It was elegantly played but still a somewhat flat end to the evening.
Thursday night was the National Ballet of Canada’s turn to launch its 2021-22 season, like the TSO after a 20-month absence from its hometown venue, the Four Seasons Centre, but with only a 10-minute vaccination passport check-in delay.
“Welcome back” was the slogan blazoned on the hall’s front curtain. “It’s so nice to see you,” was company executive director Barry Hughson’s simple yet heartfelt greeting when later he came out to address what seemed to be a pretty full house. Unlike the TSO, which for the moment is keeping to 60 per cent capacity, the National Ballet is taking advantage of the latest guidelines to sell potentially to 100 per cent.
The program itself, however, was planned in the spring amidst continuing uncertainty about what might be permitted come the fall; thus a fairly short program with no intermission of two one-act ballets separated for logistical reasons by the screening of “Soul,” a short work the National Ballet commissioned more than a year ago from choreographer Jera Wolfe for its virtual programming. Its small cast of two couples is a reminder of the rigorous public health guidelines in force when “Soul” was recorded. Its mood speaks to a yearning for human connection prevalent throughout the pandemic.
Ballets get programmed not merely for audience appeal but because a large company must be kept busy. This double bill of Russian-American choreographer George Balanchine’s now iconic “Serenade” from 1935 and Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite’s commissioned work “Angels’ Atlas” from February last year qualifies on both counts. Far outnumbered, men play second fiddle in “Serenade.” In “Angels’ Atlas,” they have equal presence.
They are both, in different ways, enigmatic ballets. It’s futile to attempt to ascribe specific meaning to either. Joy and sadness, meetings and partings, life and death, hints of divinity? There’s lots of room for speculation but, like music, these ballets are felt not through reason but by instinct. Regardless, they are both deeply absorbing works and the National Ballet’s dancers gave them all they had.
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