The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presents “Gustavo Gimeno Conducts the Firebird”, on June 29th 2019 at Roy Thompson Hall
Conductor: Gustavo Gimeno
Violinist: Jonathan Crow
Adagio di molto
Allegro, ma non tanto
Gavotte (Non troppo allegro)
Finale (Molto vivace)
Igor Stravinsky: Suite from The Firebird (1945 revision)
it’s a wrap: the 2018/2019 season, which began in september with berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, brought dvorak’s New World Symphony in october, sibelius’s Second Symphony in january (which i had the joy of reviewing for The Wholenote Magazine), shostakovich’s Symphony No.10 in february, bruckner’s Symphony No.9 in march, beethoven’s Eroica in april, mozart’s Piano Concerto No.21 in may, hosted jan lisiecki earlier this month---closes with an explosive program under the baton of the orchestra’s incoming conductor, gustavo gimeno and the bow of the indispensable concertmaster, jonathan crow taking on one of the most challenging concertos on any instrument in the repertoire. the evening, spectacular in every one of its 77 minutes, had the whole colour-spectrum of emotions from the sibelius concerto in a home key of D Minor and to the last movement of the Classical Symphony that prokofiev set entirely in major keys; and from the single-mindedness of the concerto form thereon to the full-fledged fleet of a symphony firing on all pistons, and finally the smorsgaboard of activity in the Suite for The Firebird.
you can tell much about what a conductor wants from music--let alone the orchestra--by the choreography of their gestures. in the post-performance talk conducted between gimeno, crow and the TSO’s CEO matthew loden, gimeno described his set of inclinations--or perhaps presuppositions--as ‘an idea of sound’. trying to extrapolate his ideas from his gestures, one might come to the conclusion that he believes music should be a beautiful thing, that, when appropriate, formulaic rigidity should give way to expressiveness. perhaps i’m reading too much into how well he wears his suit, how straight he stands, those long kawhi-esque hands lifting whatever section they’re pointing to the very tip of every note. going a bit further with the basketball reference: it is not entirely irrelevant that our Raptors brought home the championship in the same year that they brought aboard a new coach...setting very recent precedent that a change at the top can bring very good news. holding on to my horses for a minute though, as the incoming conductor doesn’t actually come in till fall of 2020. but judging from the performance on saturday night, and his post-show commentary, the wait will be well worth it; he appears to be a musician who feels the music first before thinking about how to shape it. and i’m encouraged by the fact that he was a percussionist before becoming a conductor.
i had been looking forward to this performance as early as october when i saw that the sibelius concerto was in the program, and especially since the beginning of june when i had the opportunity to discuss the piece with crow. evidently his role as concertmaster had to expand this season in order to fill some of the incalculable qualities that a permanent music director brings, even if sir andrew davis’s presence was as successful as can be hoped from an interim director. though my focus was primarily on sibelius, the performance of the Classical Symphony and Suite from The Firebird were both exhilarating, the latter to jaw-dropping proportions.
the Classical Symphony, written by prokofiev in 1917 amidst the turmoil of a world war, two revolutions and a civil war, was a decisively vibrant work, especially so in the closing fourth movement. at a time when Enlightenment values seemed to hold the least favour amongst european hegemonic powers, it is understandable that the composer looked to the distant past for inspiration. as the title suggests, the symphony is structured along more formulaic, classical lines with four cohesive movements in the style of haydn and mozart. even the orchestration mimics those titans of the Classical era with its placement of two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, bolstered by timpani and strings. but as the TSO’s kevin bazzana cautions, this isn’t just a homage to the greats. “Nothing is more deadly to a parody than belabouring the point, and this is a parody, albeit an affectionate one” he said in the program notes. prokofiev indeed mixes in a bit of his own cheekiness. how it is a pianist wrote so well for the orchestra is one of the many impressive details in how this piece came to be. the effort was a very conscious one, as the composer revealed in this autobiography, the skill did not come naturally to him:
I was intrigued with the idea of writing an entire symphonic piece without the piano. A composition written this way would probably have more orchestral colours … Haydn’s technique had become particularly clear to me after working with Tcherepnin and it seemed it would be easier to dive into the deep waters of writing without the piano if I worked in a familiar setting. “” sergei prokofiev in his autobiography
the TSO, in turn, makes the most of the relatively short sprint of a symphony. coming down from the frigid heights of the violin concerto and into warmer conditions, the string sections, now free from the shadow of a solo instrument, crank up the volume and send flakes of resin flying with a vibrant finale paced Molto vivace.
the final item on the program--closing off the evening and the season--was the perfect choice for a sendoff. Stravinsky’s orchestration for The Firebird is one of those accidents-turn-staple, as stravinsky was diaghilev’s fourth choice to write the music for the ballet (behind tcherepnin, liadov and glazunov).
Stravinsky, who had been ‘intoxicated’ by Fokine’s choreography of the dances from Borodin’s Prince Igor, accepted, and wrote The Firebird over the winter of 1909-10. He completed the piano score by the beginning of April, and had orchestrated it by mid-May. The premiere at the Opéra in Paris was on 25 June 1910. Stravinsky was twenty-eight, and this was his great breakthrough. “” robert phillip, The Classical Music Lover’s Companion to Orchestral Music
though listening to the work one might imagine that the composer was born to write this piece and this piece alone. here is where the conductor’s musical inclinations shown the most, the athleticism of his gestures were mirrored in the ferocity, the relentless bombast with which the orchestra responded. loden began the post-show commentary that followed by saying ‘something special started here tonight’--indeed, it felt like the orchestra, after an entire season doffing different conductors, found in gimeno, a hat with the perfect fit. it was a united acknowledgement, by audience and orchestra alike, that many such nights like this one lay ahead--of blasting brass and thunderous timpani. the sound was electric and the volume appropriate for the cavernous proportions of Roy Thomson Hall.
walking home along king street thereafter i was thinking, as i am now, of how incredibly lucky i am to have been a partaker of the TSO’s 2018/19 season. i know more now than in september how very much a city needs a symphony, a place of regular attendance wherein the pleasure of familiar pieces beside the thrill of something unexpected, or perhaps forgotten. as usual i sat next to patrons who had been subscribing to the TSO since before the domestication of canines or some such ancient origin: to my right was a 30-year subscriber, there with his daughter, and to my left a 60-year subscriber who, now 78, attended his first TSO performance at the age of 15 and has been ‘showing up ever since’. on that walk home i was thinking also of what has been a recurrent thought since the weather got good enough for people watching: of time and city. that is, the tremendous anonymity afforded by city-life, and how few the institutions are that make it possible to, in a sense, stick around. sixty years? september of last year is already a distant speck in the rearview, perhaps in some years from now when the TSO produces berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique again i might better recall the sights and sounds of the city as they were in september.
(jonathan crow performs sibelius’s Violin Concerto in D Minor)
a bit of a confession: barring any noticeable accidents, i was a priori quite sure i was going enjoy crow’s performance, the magic of this concerto would survive even a lacklustre performance. from the tremolo on muted violins that introduces a melody by the solo instrument, the distinct character of the piece is immediately apparent. it’s a language of its own, whether or not a particular orator isn’t completely fluent does not blemish the poetry therein. another a priori fact: crow was going to nail every single one of those winding and tortuous notes. perhaps i’m so inclined because of the esteem to which he held the piece during our conversation a couple weeks ago; or the fact that had performed the concerto very recently with the Etobicoke Philharmonic Orchestra; or perhaps it’s my irrational inclination that tall men, like presidents (lincoln, johnson, jefferson), make good violinists (yehudi menuhin, andrew bird, and of course crow). his performance was indeed phenomenal, rising up to the nauseating heights demanded by several of those sinewy, seemingly never-ending cadenzas.
throughout this season i’ve heard an observation repeated a handful of times, from several people but best articulated by leslie barcza: that Roy Thomson Hall is too big for its own good, or at least the TSO’s good. i tend to agree with that, and am especially conscious of that during the performance of a concerto. (only during the performance of mahler’s Symphony No.2 in april did i feel that the music matched the scale of the building it’s in). the concrete scrolls of the auditorium seem to soak up the soundwaves that would otherwise register as fine details. that was the case with the performance of the sibelius concerto. watching a soloist work away at this concerto looks very much like they’re chipping away at a marble slab with a chisel made of horse hair, miniscule chips of marble are flying all over the place, and that is part of the fun of the piece, the apparent and perhaps possible combustibility of the instrument. some of the flying debris as the soloist chizels the cadenzas--especially the closing stretch replete with high octaves trills and harmonics--might be lost in the massive auditorium that’s about a thousand seats too big. Nothing can be done about that, of course, but when has that ever been a reason to not complain?
aside from the side of the auditorium as a distraction, there’s also the possibility that i might have better enjoyed crow’s performance had my expectations been more tethered to reality. in our conversation he talked about his favourite recording of the piece, “I always loved the Heifetz recording, just so amazing. I think I probably listened to the beginning over and over, just the sound that he created was kind of incredible.That very first note with the sound that he’s making you can imagine that close up it almost sounds like metal...it’s so incredibly intense. That’s hard to get across on a recording, I think with a lot of the recordings of violinist that I love, I feel somehow I’ve lost something that’s kind of softened compared to a live performance. The thing I loved about the Heifetz--and that’s probably because he put the mic probably two inches from his bridge--was the intensity that comes across from the recording, so great.” after that conversation i checked to see which recording of the concerto i had in my Apple Music library and it was indeed the jascha heifetz recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, an absolutely blistering rendition. with that in my mind as the standard, plus having just watched hilary hahn’s performance of the same piece with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, one can’t help but over-anticipate every note and wish it played a bit faster, and at some perhaps superhuman speed. what crow’s performance delivered instead was complete expression of every note rather than breezing through the tricky parts like some sort of auditory flip-book. taking one’s time with a difficult, dexterously demanding task is observably more difficult that zipping through it via muscle memory alone.
the first movement, as it makes up half the concerto (and is longer than all of prokofiev’s Classical Symphony), is the main challenge. musicologist Donald tovey, whose famous commentary on the third movement (‘a polonaise for polar bears’), had as well insightful things to say about the first movement, Allegro moderato:
In the looser concerto form invented by Mendelssogn and Schumann, I have not met with a more original, a more masterly, and a more exhilarating work. Its originality lies particularly in the dark sonorities of the orchestral writing, which are highly characteristic of Sibelius. And as for incoherence, it is true that the concerto can ramble in some performances. The first movement in particular can seem loosely rhapsodic unless tightly controlled by the soloist. “” donald tovey
whereas strength and an energetic pace is sufficient for the second and third movements, the first requires a bit of creative control on the part of soloist in order for the long movement--almost twenty minutes in length--to maintain cohesion. crow’s timing, his sense of urgency without rush, maintained that cohesion in a concerto whose unusual orchestration has been criticized for lacking the structural unity that is expected of the format. part of the complexity of this first movement is the recurrent resurgence of the solo violin just when the first and second themes seem resolved, all the while maintaining a tight upward spiral. there are three main cadenzas in the first movement alone, one of which sibelius employs in place of a development section in the orchestra. the orchestra’s performance is applaudable throughout, in the first movement and especially in the last. aside from better integration of the timpani (a fault owing to the orchestra having only had about 7 hours of practise for the entire program) their performance was flawless.
the second movement opens with an excellent duet between oboes and clarinets as the soloist once again joins in with a melody. whereas the spotlight of the first movement is cast primarily on the soloist, the slow second movement, Larghetto, gives the orchestra an opportunity to flex its wings and bellow its lungs. the orchestra is again outstanding, evoking the ominous swell on strings that gives the movement its brooding yet unsettling character. in the final movement the orchestra was seemingly possessed, they gave the bear something worth dancing for. the soloist is introduced with a nordic polonaise that is a mix of a chase and a dance. crow’s fingering of the movement’s theme in staccato semiquavers in unbelievably executed, as the woodwind sections gradually enter to quieten the swell. “Here the temptation is the opposite of that in the first movement” says musicologist robert phillip, “to play the finale very fast in order to work up the excitement. But the exhilaration is in the inexorable rhythm, not in the speed, and Sibelius underlines this by marking the movement Allegro, ma non tanto.” with the final cadenza crow delivers a haymaker as the brass section blasts the soloist into precipitous heights with a set of dark, rumbling chords.