TORONTO – Standing ovations before and after: The response by a live audience to the reappearance of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra following a long separation was both appropriate and predictable. Happily, the enthusiasm Wednesday night in Roy Thomson Hall was justified by the calibre of the playing. This was a first-class ensemble led by a conductor – Gustavo Gimeno, making his live-public debut as music director – who gave every indication of being equal to his task.
The program, amounting to a little more than an hour of music, was not of exceptional interest, which made the success of the concert all the more remarkable. Schubert’s Fifth Symphony was the main item. This lightly-scored charmer of 1816 is often given by a chamber orchestra. Gimeno assembled a substantial squad including a dozen first violins.
The result was a full-hearted performance, elegant in the first movement, laid back in the Andante con moto, energetic in the Menuetto and agile in the finale. Many of these virtues had already been evident in Haydn’s episodic Overture to L’isola disabitata, also given with a large complement of strings. The implied message seemed to be: You like a lean approach to music of the classical period? Tafelmusik will be happy to hear from you. The TSO, as its name denotes, is a symphony orchestra.
Woodwinds were sweet in both works. Paul Hindemith’s Concert Music for Strings and Brass gave full voice to the sections mentioned by the title, sometimes together, often apart. There were fine solos by the principal horn, trombone and trumpet. Even the second fiddles were given the spotlight on the string side, and made much of the opportunity. Despite the rugged character of the piece, the sounds were handsome and balanced.
All of which is to say that the orchestra did not seem in the slightest out of shape. Credit for the results, of course, is owing Gimeno as well as the players. Using the score, this conductor was an elegant but businesslike figure on the podium who looked good precisely because he was doing his job economically and well.
This might have been the first opening night in TSO history that featured no percussion. It is an interesting detail, considering Gimeno’s past as a timpanist for the Concertgebouw Orchestra.
The concert began half an hour late owing to long lineups outdoors, where inspectors verified the vaccination status of ticketholders. One shudders to think of the delay had all seats, rather than 60 percent, been for sale. Of course wearing a mask was required at all times. Concert attendance these days is a trying experience.
The first music we heard was not O Canada, as in years past, but Invictus, a brief and uneventful brass fanfare by Anthony Barfield. It appears that this American composer was accorded the honour because he wrote a piece with a suitable title (meaning “unconquered” in Latin) that had something to do with the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter upheavals of 2020.
Concertmaster Jonathan Crow issued the mandatory acknowledgement that the orchestra was performing on the ancestral lands of various First Nations. Gimeno offered some heartfelt remarks before the Schubert on the power of music. The program is repeated on Thursday and Saturday. I am told that the musicians on Thursday will be wearing poppies.