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The DNA of the TSO

As the Toronto Symphony Orchestra celebrates 100 years, a new vision takes hold


MAR 07, 2023 | ISSUE 11

Gustavo Gimeno and the TSO - Photo by Allan Cabral
Gustavo Gimeno - Photo by Allan Cabral
Gustavo Gimeno and the TSO - Photo by Allan Cabral

In 2020, Spanish conductor Gustavo Gimeno took up a new post as Music Director at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO). The timing could not have been more challenging; the COVID-19 pandemic immediately disrupted any kind of consistent planning, even as the TSO geared up to celebrate its centennial in the 2022/23 season. But under the leadership of Gimeno and his artistic team, the TSO has returned triumphantly to the stage, combining world-class orchestral quality with a series of initiatives which respond to this unique cultural moment.

The TSO’s renewed joie de vivre is on full display in the Celebration Preludes, a set of ten three-minute orchestral works commissioned from Toronto-area composers to commemorate the orchestra’s centennial and its beloved home city. Speaking with smART Magazine, it’s clear that the Celebrations project is an evolution of Gimeno’s love for Toronto’s vibrant cultural scene. “As we searched for these works, we wanted a variety of styles and backgrounds because that’s what’s faithful to Toronto and to Canada,” he reflects. “We started this project from a desire to hear different voices, and especially those who are under-represented. And from that starting point, by definition, you also get contrasting styles of composition, especially where composers choose to bring in folk music influences. For example, in Luis Ramirez’s Mi Piñata there was a clear influence of Mexican folk music, and Iranian folk music came through in Afarin Mansouri’s Mithrā.”

But the Celebration Preludes also represent a different facet of the TSO’s mission: even as audiences encounter new repertoire that is beginning to better reflect the cultures of Toronto’s kaleidoscopic streets, the composers of the Preludes are entering the TSO’s layered ecosystem of support for new music. “The Celebration Preludes are a way of getting to know composers for more substantial plans in the future. As well as the Preludes, we have our ongoing NextGen Composers project, where we select three composers per season to have pieces premiered on multiple concerts. Then we also commission works from established Canadian composers like Gary Kulesha, or our affiliate composers Emilie LeBel and Alison Yun-Fei Jiang, and of course we also highlight international contemporary composers.”

The TSO’s Explore the Score series looks at contemporary music from another angle, giving public audiences a rare window into the process behind composition and rehearsal. “Explore the Score lets us publicly perform a composer’s short piece, workshop it for twenty minutes, and then play it again. As we work, we dialogue directly with the composer: ‘how short do you want this articulation,’ or ‘this doesn’t work, cross it out.’” While the process gives audiences a new appreciation for the work and artists behind new music, it’s also an invaluable practical opportunity for the composers themselves. “Composers have ideas, emotions, and challenges, and they search for sounds and ways to notate them. But hearing the performance is sometimes a shock for them; after months of work, it’s all over in five minutes. So, after the public portion on stage, we keep talking about what worked well and what could be further developed. Yes, these composers get the chance to have their music played by a top orchestra and learn things you cannot learn in a conservatory classroom. But it’s also about the TSO simply being there and showing a great welcoming attitude to a young composer and their music. I feel very proud that we do this. It keeps us inspired and challenged every day.”

One key to success for the TSO’s contemporary music programs is their inclusion within the orchestra’s core concert series. Gimeno describes an approach which pairs contemporary music with classics and emerging composers with established historical figures. “We bring all of those elements together. I think it’s great for the audience: maybe they wouldn’t choose, at first, to go to a contemporary music concert. But they come for Beethoven’s Ninth, and then they discover that the piece they loved most was the contemporary one. We want to create sonic challenges and maybe a little bit of provocation.”

With a hint of glee, Gimeno describes an upcoming concert from the 2022/23 season: “People love Ravel’s Bolero. You hear it everywhere. You can hear it at the hairdresser. So we’ve programmed Bolero, but on the same program, we will play Henri Dutilleux’s Symphony No. 1. It’s never been played by the TSO; it seems like nobody knows it. But it’s an absolutely wonderful 20th century work, and those who come for Bolero will also listen to Dutilleux.” Ever aware of the orchestra’s impressive history, Gimeno continues, “this multidirectional, layered approach to newer music is already in the DNA of the orchestra. But we are taking new chances to create even more opportunities for composers and audiences.”

The Toronto Symphony - Photo by Jag Gundu

As much as orchestras develop their own valuable sonic DNA over the decades, classical music as a whole is questioning its history: what traditions and tendencies of the classical music world perpetuate harm instead of good? Who has been left out and what do they have to say? For Gimeno, the TSO’s growing work with emerging and under-represented composers is a model for widening the orchestra’s circles of inclusion and musician development. One initiative in this direction is the Women in Musical Leadership program. A partnership between the TSO, Tapestry Opera, and Pacific Opera Victoria, this provides female and non-binary conductors with mentorship, performance, and networking opportunities at the highest levels. “I want to create a bigger space for women. Our participation in the Women in Musical Leadership program is a first step, and a declaration of intent. Officially it’s only existed for two years—during the pandemic, no less. It’s less developed than the composition programs, but I want it to grow. Right now, I coach the participants’ conducting while they conduct pianists playing orchestral reductions, but in the future I want to get them on stage with the TSO—the same way that we do Explore the Score.”

Of course, one of the greatest strengths of the TSO — and Toronto in general — is the ability to lure some of the world’s leading artists to perform in the city. Given free rein to choose his favourite artists of the moment for the TSO’s 2022/23 Spotlight Artists, Gimeno chose with immediate confidence: one artist who scarcely needs introduction, and one sorely overdue for a Toronto debut.

“No one is like Yuja Wang! You realise she’s spectacular within a couple of seconds of hearing her. When I met her, she was already a really prominent soloist for obvious reasons. We played concerts together first in Amsterdam with the Concertgebouw Orchestra — Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2 — and then went on tour to so many places together. She is a unique human being with a concrete stage presence, and she had a longstanding relationship with Toronto predating my arrival, so it made perfect sense for her to be a Spotlight Artist.“

Gustavo Gimeno and the Toronto Symphony - Photo by Jag Gundu