There’s a grainy home video from the early 2010s of actor Bill Murray crashing a wedding with some advice for the hopeful bachelors in the groom’s party: If you think you’ve found the one, travel the world with them first, and if you’re still in love when you return, get married at the airport.
That, incidentally, is also great advice for an orchestra. While the 100-year-old Toronto Symphony Orchestra might be far removed from the dynamics of newlyweds, their current tour is their first under new music director Gustavo Gimeno. The TSO began a three-city hop on Feb. 11, ending with swooning a Valentine’s Day audience at Chicago’s Symphony Center. Part of the TSO’s centenary celebration, this tour marks the orchestra’s debut in Chicago.
For this occasion, Gimeno has crafted a Valentine’s Day program that culminates in a bespoke compilation of Prokofiev’s incidental music for his Romeo and Juliet ballet and begins with two works showcasing the dexterous variety and championship of Canadian music the orchestra is known for. The first of these is the imaginative Symphony No. 2 by Samy Moussa, which was commissioned by the TSO and premiered in May, 2022, during the composer’s residency with the orchestra.
All eyes and ears will be primed for the second item on the program, as Spanish violinist Maria Duenas grips onto Edouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole for Violin and Orchestra. “When I met her,” Gimeno recalls from his Roy Thomson Hall office, “I asked her, will you come to Toronto? After just a couple of notes in rehearsal for Lalo, I saw several faces of the orchestra members light up and go, ‘Oh my God, what is this?’ And I thought, yes! That’s why we invited her. Of course, she has great intonation, but above that there is a layer of energy, passion, charisma that just transforms the room.”
At just 20-years-old, Duenas has already made her Carnegie debut and is returning now to surmount a challenging work for even the most seasoned soloists, bringing to it a stamina beyond her years. “I can’t imagine a better performer for this piece,” Gimeno continues, “not only because she comes from the South of Spain, but it’s the flavour, the character, the freedom and the structure she brings to the piece. How can you be so steady and so flexible at the same time?”
The rest of the tour came together through a mix of careful planning and serendipitous timing. On the planning side, Mark Williams – chief executive of the TSO – wanted to introduce the ensemble to North America’s music capitals. “We’re going to cities where orchestral music, at the highest level, really matters,” says Williams, “and Toronto is certainly a city like that. So taking the orchestra to New York, to Carnegie Hall, America’s concert hall, certainly promotes the TSO on the global stage as an organization that’s worthy of attention. I would say the same with Chicago and, of course, our own National Arts Centre in Ottawa.”
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For Williams, this tour is also a team-building opportunity. “The musicians live all over the Greater Toronto Area and come together at Roy Thomson Hall every week. We start rehearsals on a Tuesday, play that program on a Thursday, and by Sunday that program is done, and we’ve moved on to something else. On a tour, you have the opportunity over weeks to be with the musicians, to be together, but also to be together with the music.” It’s a benefit concertmaster Jonathan Crow echoes, as he notes that it’s “the small interactions with colleagues in the airports [and] hotels that bring us closer together as a group, which brings an even deeper connection onstage.”
Owing to some fortuitous timing, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) made an appearance in Toronto on February 1 with a program that also included a Prokofiev favourite. For Jeff Alexander, President of the CSO Association, this apparent exchange owes more to serendipity than to boardroom brainstorming. “Well over a year ago,” Alexander recalls, “I was approached by Loie Fallis, the TSO’s Vice-President Artistic Planning, to see if the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association would present a TSO concert as part of its 100th anniversary tour. I was immediately enthusiastic about this opportunity, having heard the TSO perform numerous times.” The CSO postponed a planned January 2023 tour of Asia, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and decided to fill that time with a North American tour, including the Toronto stop. As Alexander observes, “Toronto and Chicago both have a very rich arts and culture community, bringing great joy and inspiration to citizens of all ages and backgrounds on a daily basis.”
The CSO postponed a planned January, 2023, tour of Asia, due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, and decided to fill that time with a North American tour, including the Toronto stop. “Toronto and Chicago both have a very rich arts and culture community, bringing great joy and inspiration to citizens of all ages and backgrounds on a daily basis,” says Alexander.
While there are several firsts for the orchestra on this tour, for two of the TSO’s latest recruits, the debut in Chicago is a return to familiar grounds. Cellist Lucia Ticho, who joined the TSO this season, is a Chicago native who first performed at the Symphony Center with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras as a high school student. Excited to make her debut as a professional, Lucia observes the extensive similarities between her native and adopted cities: “Chicago and Toronto are both very proud of their city’s orchestra. It’s been gratifying to feel so welcomed and valued in Toronto since arriving last September,” she says.
And associate principal oboist Alex Liedtke, who made his debut performance at Symphony Center in high school, also noted the coincidence. “How serendipitous that my very first season in the Toronto Symphony includes a tour to the concert hall that shaped me so much growing up, both as performer and audience member,” he says.
The TSO’s first concert back from this Valentine’s Day tour will be a much-anticipated return to Massey Hall – an opportunity, perhaps, to show off how well they learned to get along on the road.
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