The last time the Toronto Symphony Orchestra performed Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade – February, 2020 – it was paired with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in a program that opened with a three-minute suite for orchestra. Scheherazade returned in this opening concert for the TSO’s 100th anniversary season, this time paired with a three-minute Prelude for orchestra … and a different Piano Concerto No. 2.
At first glance, this might seem like simply rinsing and repeating a program taken from those fraught weeks before the initial pandemic lockdowns, when little attention was being paid to anything but case counts. On second glance, you’d notice that this is less a case of recycling concerts and instead proof that the orchestra has found a consistent formula that works: come for the old but stay for the new. Credit to Gustavo Gimeno, the new conductor, whose talent for matchmaking freshly commissioned works with perennial favourites has breathed new life into an institution on the cusp of its centenary.
This opening program is a colourful glimpse into the TSO’s trend toward maintaining a delicate and often difficult balance between the local and historical. The Prelude, commissioned by the TSO, was composed by Kevin Lau, who emerged from the audience to receive an ovation from his fellow Torontonians. The brevity of Lau’s The Story of the Dragon Gate, based on a fable extracted from Chinese mythology, is balanced by its enormous proportions. Scored for a massive orchestra, there’s barely a square foot of the stage unoccupied by the carnival of instruments in the orchestration.
The work is the launching pad for a nearly two-hour concert that’s loosely driven by the motif of flight. While Lau’s piece strikes a celebratory stance with its upward thrusts propelled by a muscular string section, it is followed by a more sombre take on the theme of fearless ascension. Contemporary composer Lera Auerbach’s symphonic poem Icarus, likewise inspired by mythic literature, traces the tragic parabola of the title character’s flight and fall. This combination of boundless optimism tempered with a cautionary tale is exactly the kind of pandemic-era realism we should demand from thoughtful programming.
Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 marked the border between the old and new in this program, but even here there was a crisp green sensation of a new beginning: Pianist Bruce Liu has arrived, brace for impact. The Montreal-raised pianist won first prize at last year’s Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, so the TSO is right to have opened the curtains of their new season with this homegrown wunderkind in tow. There’s no question that he can play Chopin convincingly – that was settled in Warsaw – the reason he’s box office is because of everything else they can’t teach you: swagger, mixed with a sincere devotion to the music flowing out of his hands. Two standing ovations after his performance, he left us wanting more by garnishing his exit with an encore via Chopin’s Étude Op. 10, No. 5. Again, come for the same old Chopin, but stay for the emerging talents that are attacking the music with a newfangled ferocity.
An orchestra that can deliver Scheherazade on any given night is worth every ticket it sells, and then some. This orchestral suite is the Superbowl of the symphony – it has everything from precipitous stringencies to extravagant lyricism. To pull it off, you need a peculiar jiggle in your soul. The work is a tense tête-à-tête between a snake charmer on principal violin (Jonathan Crow is irreproachable as always), a ventriloquist on the podium (the fluidity of Gimeno’s gestures is mesmerizing), and a deranged sultan voiced by the brass section. Yes, the subtext is problematic – a concubine must tell 1,001 fables over as many nights to prevent a sultan from killing her – even the composer tried to deflect away from this source material back in 1888. But when it’s performed this well, with such explosive precision on percussions, and a deliciously melodic lilt on woodwinds, we can afford to forget briefly of the attendant baggage.
At a TSO concert four years ago, music critic Robert Harris shrugged off my question regarding the alleged threat of classical music’s increasing irrelevance with: “Nothing else can do what this music does.” I agree, and programs like this push the boundaries of what this genre can do. If this inaugural concert indicates the path being charted by the orchestra’s new leadership, then the TSO – and the thousands in attendance on opening night – have nothing to worry about. Creating consistent space in your programming for the new, the diverse and the local is a formula that works. Feel free to rinse and repeat as frequently as you can get away with.