I was hired in 2019 to lead the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. After almost three years, I’m finally making my stage debut
The Spanish conductor Gustavo Gimeno was hired in 2019 to replace longtime TSO conductor Peter Oundjian. His first season was canceled, but he finally got his orchestra back in March. Here’s how he brings the TSO back on stage.
–As said to Luc Rinaldi
“I remember very well the first time I conducted the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, because it was love at first sight. It was February 2018, and I arrived at Roy Thomson Hall to rehearse for a concert I was guest conductor later in the week. We played the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 and I was like, “My God, they’re playing beautifully.
“I am the musical director of the Orchester Philharmonique du Luxembourg and have been guest conductor in cities all over the world. The first sessions rarely go as well as with the TSO. It’s not that the musicians played perfectly, that’s not the problem, but they played with personality and passion. I felt a connection with their sound and phrasing. They were serious and professional, but open-minded and relaxed. It was just a great atmosphere. I also immediately recognized the strong musical leadership and qualities of first violin Jonathan Crow.. During a break in training, I called a few people close to me and said, “I’m in Heaven.
“I also loved the city itself. The people I met were friendly and approachable. The restaurants were amazing. Loved the neighborhoods I visited – Chinatown, the Distillery, the Entertainment District – and the mix of new and old architecture, heritage buildings next to sleek skyscrapers. It might have been the coldest place I had ever been to, but I was ready to forgive it.
“The TSO was looking for a new Music Director to succeed Peter Oundjian, and the TSO management attended a number of my performances so they could watch me conduct. We had then a series of conversations to ensure that we agree on the artistic direction and community engagement of the orchestra. They invited me to lead TSO again, and finally, in November 2019, it became official: I would be TSO’s new musical director, starting in the 2020-21 season.
“Almost immediately we started to book soloists, to select concertos, to write down dates. I was delighted to have the chance to present new works by Canadian composers. If I hadn’t joined the TSO, I might never have had the opportunity to perform these pieces. I was proud of how our program reflected the diversity of Toronto’s neighborhoods and people – popular masterpieces in the same concerts as contemporary works. And I was also looking forward to discovering more of the city. Although my home remains in Amsterdam – it’s a travel hub, making it easy to travel between my engagements – I knew I would be spending a lot of time in Toronto.
“Of course when the pandemic hit we had to cancel all of our plans. It was devastating to tell some incredibly talented artists and friends that their performances had been canceled. Worse, we had no idea when things were going to pick up. We were stuck in limbo.
“I consider myself lucky because I kept my post at the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra. Many conductors divide their time between two orchestras with alternating seasons, and I also conduct other guest orchestras, so I was able to work the entire 2020-21 season with some regularity. I conducted orchestras in front of a hidden audience of 100 to 600 people. It was unusual, but after months of absence I was delighted to be back on stage and performing for real people. I could feel the audience were just as happy, their applause wasn’t as loud, but it lasted just as long. It gave me a dose of music that rejuvenated my soul.
“Yet after so much time planning and anticipating my first TSO season, I wanted to return to the orchestra in Toronto. I was supposed to fill Roy Thomson Hall with music.
“My biggest worry was that my colleagues at TSO – the musicians, the administrative staff, the behind-the-scenes team – were missing out on what they loved the most. As a Music Director, I spend a lot of time thinking about the collective spirit of an orchestra. I worried, after a year without playing together, this mind would be in danger. We couldn’t rehearse together on Zoom due to audio delays and it wouldn’t have made sense anyway – real music only happens when we’re all on stage together, and ideally for an audience in the same room. But I was encouraged to see the orchestra giving virtual concerts and solo performances for the isolated elderly. Watching from abroad, their live broadcasts brought me and my family a lot of joy. Each of these concerts boosted everyone’s morale.
“I tried to schedule rehearsals with the TSO at different times during the pandemic, but each time the travel and gathering restrictions made it impossible. Finally, last March, one of our plans came to fruition and we found ourselves on the stage at Roy Thomson Hall. It was an emotional moment for me. We were all so happy, we would have kissed if we could. But we had to be careful to make sure we followed strict health protocols. Everyone was seated at a distance, wearing masks. The brass and wind sections were enclosed in barriers to contain their breath. For a virtual audience of donors and students, we performed Beethoven’s Symphonies No.6 and No.7 as well as works by Canadian composers Kelly-Marie Murphy and Barbara Assiginaak.
“Before this performance, I was worried that we would lose touch with ourselves individually and collectively. Playing together again has reminded us of who we are and what we love to do. This session helped us forget some of the terrible moments of the past year and gave us a glimpse into the brightest months to come.
“We needed it. The early stages of planning for the 2021-22 season were terrifying. As a cultural institution, I think we have a duty to move forward, to give audiences something to anticipate. We had to announce our season and the stakes were high. Not only would it be our return to the concert hall; it would also be TSO’s 100th anniversary, an incredible milestone. But we had no idea how Covid would evolve. There were so many unknowns. How many musicians could we have on stage? How many spectators? What would the restrictions require several months from now?
“The early stages of planning were overwhelming. On the one hand, we couldn’t meet in person. All my interactions with the musicians, the artistic advisory committee, the CEO and the various teams of the organization took place by videoconference. But little by little, as we started to discuss, think and solve problems, a season started to take shape. I was excited about the musically adventurous ideas offered by the orchestra members, including several pieces that I myself did not know that made the programs more interesting and meaningful. Together, we went through all the programs for the 2021-22 season. Our guiding philosophy was to continue to program beloved classics alongside unknown works we love, many of which are exciting new Canadian composers.
“The season will gradually accelerate, like a crescendo. We start on November 10 with a smaller orchestra – around 50 musicians rather than the usual 100 or more – playing Schubert and Haydn for an audience below capacity, depending on the restrictions at that time. Throughout the season, we’ll be adding more musicians and spectators until our grand finale in June: a concert with Beethoven’s Symphony No.9, Ode to Joy. It is one of the most famous symphonies ever composed, a celebration of humanity and resilience. After the pandemic, I think that’s exactly what we need. “