Toronto Relays: Baton Passed Around As Five Directors Cross Podium

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Former Toronto Symphony music directors Peter Oundjian, Andrew Davis, Günther Herbig, and Jukka-Pekka Saraste with current music director Gustavo Gimeno. (Photos by Jag Gundu)

TORONTO – As the Toronto Symphony Orchestra continued playing a Dvořák Slavonic Dance, a procession of five conductors made their way, one at a time, across the stage of Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall on the evening of April 9, pausing long enough at the podium to lead several measures of music before yielding the baton to a successor.

They had, in fact, all been successors in the same position, music director of one of Canada’s two leading orchestras (the other being the Orchestre symphonique de montreal), over the course of nearly half a century.

There would have been six had Seiji Ozawa been well enough to join them, but the Japanese maestro, who led the orchestra between 1965 and 1969, has been in fragile health. The orchestra marked the early launch of its 2022-23 100th anniversary season by inviting its other living music directors to collaborate in what was called the “Maestros’ Special Homecoming.”

The Toronto Symphony has had only ten music directors since its founding in 1923 (an earlier orchestra had foundered in the wake of World War I) and as such ensembles go, Toronto’s has been relatively stable over the years.

It was stable on the evening of April 9 as well, maintaining a consistently high playing level throughout as maestro followed maestro in historical order, each re-visiting music he had performed during his years in Canada’s largest city.

First came Andrew Davis, who arrived in 1975 following the death of Ozawa’s successor, the distinguished Czech conductor Karel Ančerl, whose health, undermined by time spent in a Nazi concentration camp, gave out after only four years of setting a new standard for the orchestra.

Tag-team Dvořák: Current TSO music director Gustavo Gimeno led the band as former bosses Oundjian, Saraste, Davis, and Herbig look on.

Not that Ančerl had exactly found himself in a provincial backwater. Following their London debut under Ozawa at the Commonwealth Arts Festival, Felix Aprahamian of the Sunday Times praised the Torontonians for producing “orchestral playing of the great international class.”

But without the financial resources of the great American orchestras, Toronto has had to punch above its weight when hunting conductors, if you will forgive the mixed metaphor, and in Andrew Davis, a Cambridge University organ scholar still in the early stages of his career, it found a musician equipped to grow on the job.

As music critic of The Toronto Star, I witnessed his growth as I had witnessed Ozawa’s, so it came as no surprise to find the Andrew Davis of today conducting Berlioz’ Roman Carnival Overture and Delius’ Walk to the Paradise Garden with a sophistication beyond what he was able to offer in his precocious youth.

The orchestra didn’t have to hunt so far for its next maestro, Günther Herbig having just concluded his tenure with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. With an East German background and a solid grounding in the European repertoire, he deepened the orchestra’s sound and raised its playing level yet again, qualities reflected here in his performance of the Dresden version of Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture.

At the remarkable age of 90, Herbig still conducted with the firm control and emotional restraint characteristic of his Toronto years. He was and is, to borrow an old phrase, a cool customer.

As is his successor, Finland’s Jukka-Pekka Saraste, who revived memories of his championing of the music of Sibelius, his fellow countryman, with a powerfully engaged performance of Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island from the Lemminkäinen Suite.

lt was evidence of the orchestra’s cultivated versatility to hear it move idiomatically from the broadly arching phrases of Wagner to the craggy textures of Sibelius and then on to the scintillating colors of Alexina Louie’s The Ringing Earth. Toronto’s Louie is one of a number of Canadian composers championed by Peter Oundjian during his 14-year tenure, the longest of any Toronto Symphony music director save for the quarter-century reign of Canada’s only muslcal knight, Sir Ernest MacMillan (1931-56).

All’s well that bows well: Gimeno, Oundjian, Saraste, Davis, and Herbig bask in the Toronto Symphony audience’s applause.

A deliberate orchestral showpiece, written for Expo 86 in her native Vancouver, Louie’s score bears witness to the orchestra’s popularity among conductors as a quick-learning ensemble.

Like Ozawa and Davis, Oundjian did not arrive in Toronto with the repertoire of an Ančerl or Herbig, having spent much of his career as first violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet, but he exhibited a welcome musical curiosity: Witness his contribution to the program of the seldom-played “Sarka” section of Smetana’s Má vlast.

It took the orchestra a couple of further years of hunting to find his successor, the Spanish maestro Gustavo Gimeno, concurrently leading the Luxembourg Philharmonic but still little known on this side of the Atlantic.

Although his appointment began with the 2020-21 season, he initially faced an empty concert hall thanks to Covid-19 and is only beginning to make his mark. He concluded the program with Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, simultaneously paying tribute to the composer’s Basque origins and his own Iberian roots.

A dog’s breakfast of a program? On paper, perhaps, but a positive atmosphere pervaded the evening, with the conductors and players as well as their listeners obviously enjoying themselves and feeing there was something to celebrate. There was.