Massey/Return to Massey Hall, music by Tchaikovsky, Bruch and Samy Moussa, conducted by Gustavo Gimeno, guest artist Maria Dueñas, violin, Massey Hall, Feb. 17, 2023.
There are concerts and then there are concerts. Sometimes an evening of music can be so special that it is almost impossible to describe in words. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Return to Massey Hall was such a one.
It was a concert so rich in achingly beautiful music that it took the breath away. The program included two works from the 19th century – Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and Tchaikovsky’ Symphony No. 5 – and Samy Moussa’s Symphony No. 2, a TSO commission composed in 2022.
Whether pieces from the true Romantic era or Montreal-born Moussa’s Neo-Romantic offering, the orchestra under Maestro Gustavo Gimeno excelled at every level of play. The concert was near perfection.
It is almost embarrassing to be so effusive, but anyone lucky enough to be in the packed house at Massey Hall would absolutely agree with me. Trust me when I tell you it was an unforgettable musical experience.
The Return to Massey Hall program was part of the TSO’s Centennial Celebrations. On April 23, 1923, Luigi von Kunits led the then-called New Symphony Orchestra in an evening that included Tchaikovsky’s Fifth, and so the TSO was born. The orchestra and the Hall were irrevocably linked together in music-making until the move to Roy Thomson Hall in 1982.
For many in the audience such as myself who had been long-time TSO subscribers, the return to the Hall was more than a curiosity. It was the place where our love of classical music had been nurtured and broadened over the years, and so the evening carried with it a plethora of memories that included a parade of great conductors and great solo artists.
The first thing to mention about the Return to Massey Hall concert is the storied venue’s acoustics. The sound is immediate, intimate, bright and warm, with the separation between the various orchestral sections being clarity itself. It is as if one is wearing stereo headsets, for lack of a better example, because the assault of the music is such an all-encompassing aural experience.
(A treasonous thought did cross my mind, and I wondered if anyone else was thinking what it would be like if the TSO moved back to Massey Hall!)
In all three program pieces, the various sections of the orchestra had a lot to do, particularly the woodwinds, and to a lesser extent, the brass. One of the pleasures of the evening was being able to follow the various players negotiate through their music, set against the backdrop of the orchestra as a whole. To say the TSO musicians covered themselves with glory is an understatement.
The audience also witnessed Maestro Gimeno’s impressive conducting skills at close quarters. First of all, the orchestra was so disciplined, it stopped on a dime, which in and of itself was breath-taking – those all-important pauses a composer has written into the score for emphasis.
This concert also confirmed the Maestro’s sense of drama, the way he builds, the way he modulates, the way he manipulates. He is a man of detail, and the dynamic shifts in all three works were deep and profound. In short, Gimeno never loses sight of the big picture, while highlighting the individual aspects of the score.
The maestro is truly a romantic in his approach, never shying away from emotion, yet never letting it overwhelm him. Gimeno and his players touched the heart of the audience. I felt the music. It was more than just a listening experience.
The young uber-talented soloist, Maria Dueñas, just 20 years old, is Gimeno’s fellow Spaniard, and she is sensational. The violin prodigy was born in Granada and one wonders how much that centre of Gypsy (Roma) music has influenced her playing, because she attacks the music with a raw sense of energy and power.
The Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 is filled with passages of fierce music, and Dueñas used her violin like a tank barrage. On the other hand, she is capable of a sweet and tender approach in the more lyrical passages. You can tell her whole body is feeling the music. Her playing was never just showing off, paint by numbers. She is a true musician in every fibre of her being.
Moussa’s Symphony No. 2 is simply ravishing, much like a lush movie soundtrack, that takes the listener on a fascinating journey through various harmonic adventures. Because he is a Neo-Romantic, he eschews the discordant tropes of New Music. In other words, he is a living composer who has not abandoned melody.
His choice of instruments for this piece is fascinating — no trombones, and instead of trumpets there are flugelhorns, with a euphonium thrown in for good measure, not to mention only pitched instruments in the percussion. As it says in the program notes, Moussa wanted to create a new brass section sound,
As a result, there is a brightness and a sharpness in the score that assaults the ear. Particularly enjoyable are the dynamics between small sections of the orchestra contrasted against the full-frontal assaults that occur at surprising moments. Moussa is clearly a gifted composer, and some ballet choreographer should grab one of his works as soon as possible, such are the emotional layers of his Neo-Romantic sound.
As for the actual physical experience of being back at Massey Hall, it was absolutely disorienting. “The Old Lady of Shuter Street” has undergone an incredible renovation, and while the concert hall itself looks virtually the same, getting there is mind-boggling.
One arrives at a huge bar lounge area, and to get to the venue, you have to walk down long corridors along what was the outside of the original building. I actually had to ask where the concert hall was. But, the good news is that there are two elevators (albeit slow), and washrooms on every one of the three levels.
In conclusion, I was initially interested in attending this concert because I wanted to see the Massey Hall renovations, as well as experience a trip down memory lane. What I was given, however, was a concert for the ages.
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