Review | Toronto Symphony Orchestra Kicks off “Celebrate 100”: A Symphonic Century

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For the TSO’s Centennial Celebrations which began this week, music director Gustavo Gimeno’s goal is to create contrast, programming new commissions and old masterworks works side by side, with old friends and new faces on the stage, creating a dialogue with both the past and future. Last night’s concert was a fine example of this artistic vision.

 

What you missed

The 100th season opens with a roar—of the dragon—the world premiere of Chinese-Canadian composer Kevin Lau’s The Story of the Dragon Gate: Celebration Prelude, commissioned by the TSO for this season opener. Inspired by Chinese mythology, this celebratory overture, though merely three minutes short, is full of orchestral colours, with splashy layers juxtaposed against melodic themes. It is reminiscent of Star Wars meets traditional Chinese music.

The next contemporary work is also inspired by Greek mythology. Russian-American composer Lera Auerbach’s Icarus is a symphonic poem with extreme contrasts in dynamics, colour and texture. The fast movement symbolizing Icarus flying faster and closer to the sun is punctuated by bursts of dissonance that signal warning of imminent danger. Icarus’ fall from the sky is depicted with a long slow-fading movement, ending in peace with a lone major chord.

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The new face on the stage and undoubtedly the star of the night was pianist Bruce Liu, the first Canadian to ever win first prize at the International Chopin Piano Competition in 2021. Only 25 years young, he plays with immense maturity and restraint. His approach to Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor is nuanced and thoughtful yet effortless. He keeps most of the piece at mezzo piano and mezzo forte, a range he seems to be at his best. The audience was treated to an encore of Chopin’s Nocturne in C Sharp Minor, No. 20. Liu does not need to flaunt dramatic flourish; he speaks directly to the audience with his straightforward precision and subtle changes in colours. Liu’s career has been on a meteoric rise ever since his win in Warsaw, and there seems to be no limit.

The concert ends with the classical masterwork, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Gimeno’s interpretation of this audience-favourite is delightfully refreshing. Mirroring his energetic and expressive conducting, the orchestra responded with equal measures of exuberance and elegance. Concertmaster Jonathan Crow’s solos of the main theme were graceful and luscious, but many section principals—cello, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and flute—also played substantial solo parts that were solidly beautiful.

Toronto Symphony Orchestra presents Gimeno Conducts Chopin & Scheherazade at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, September 21-24, 2022. www.tso.ca

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