I was hired in 2019 to lead the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. After almost three years, I’m finally making my official onstage debut
The Spanish conductor Gustavo Gimeno was hired in 2019 to replace longtime TSO conductor Peter Oundjian. His first season got cancelled, but he finally reunited with his orchestra in March. Here’s how he’s bringing the TSO back to the stage.
—As told to Luc Rinaldi
“I vividly remember 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-conducting later that week. We played the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, and I thought to myself, ‘My God, they are playing beautifully.’
“I’m the music director of the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, and I’ve guest-conducted in cities all around the world. First sessions rarely go as well as they did with the TSO. It’s not that the musicians played perfectly—that’s not the point—but they played with personality and passion. I felt a connection to their sound and their phrasing. They were serious and professional yet open-minded and relaxed. It was just a great atmosphere. I also immediately recognized the strong musical leadership and qualities of concertmaster Jonathan Crow. During a break in practice, I called a few people who are close to me and told them, ‘I’m in heaven.’
“I also loved the city itself. The people I met were friendly and approachable. The restaurants were amazing. I loved the neighbourhoods I visited—Chinatown, the Distillery, the Entertainment District—and the mix of new and old architecture, heritage buildings next to sleek skyscrapers. It was perhaps the coldest place I’d ever been, but I was willing to forgive that.
“The TSO was looking for a new music director to succeed Peter Oundjian, and the TSO’s leadership attended a number of my performances so they could watch me conduct. We then had a series of conversations to ensure we agreed on the orchestra’s artistic direction and community involvement. They invited me to conduct the TSO again, and finally, in November 2019, it became official: I would be the TSO’s new music director, beginning with the 2020-21 season.
“Almost immediately, we began booking soloists, selecting concertos, pencilling in dates. I was thrilled that I’d get a chance to showcase new works by Canadian composers. Had I not joined the TSO, I might have never had the opportunity to perform those pieces. I was proud of the way our program reflected the diversity of Toronto’s neighbourhoods and people—popular masterpieces in the same concerts as contemporary works. And I was also looking forward to discovering more of the city. Though my home remains in Amsterdam—it’s a travel hub, which makes it easy to travel between my engagements—I knew I would be spending a great deal of time in Toronto.
“Of course, when the pandemic hit, we had to cancel all our plans. It was devastating to tell incredibly talented artists and friends that their performances were called off. Worse, we had no idea when things would resume. We were stuck in limbo.
“I consider myself lucky because I kept my position with the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg. Many conductors split their time between two orchestras with alternating seasons, and I guest-conduct other orchestras as well, so I was able to work through the whole 2020-21 season with some regularity. I’ve conducted orchestras in front of masked, distanced audiences of 100 to 600 people. It was unusual, but after months of not performing, I was thrilled to be back on stage, performing for real people. I could sense that the audience was just as happy—their applause wasn’t as loud, but it lasted just as long. It gave me a dose of music-making that rejuvenated my soul.
“Still, after so much time planning and anticipating my first TSO season, I yearned to reunite with the orchestra in Toronto. I was supposed to be filling Roy Thomson Hall with music.
“My biggest concern was that my TSO colleagues—the musicians, the administrative staff, the behind-the-scenes team—were missing out on what they loved most. As a music director, I spend a lot of time thinking about an orchestra’s collective spirit. I worried, after a year without playing together, that spirit would be at risk. We couldn’t rehearse together over Zoom because of the audio delays and it wouldn’t have made sense anyway—real music making only happens when we all are on stage together, and ideally for an audience in the same room. But I was heartened to see the orchestra perform virtual concerts and solo shows for isolated seniors. Watching from overseas, their livestreams brought me and family a lot of joy. Each of those concerts buoyed everyone’s spirits.
“I tried to schedule rehearsals with the TSO at various points throughout the pandemic, but every time, travel and gathering restrictions made things impossible. Finally, this past March, one of our plans came to fruition, and we reunited on the stage of Roy Thomson Hall. It was an emotional moment for me. We were all so happy—we would have embraced each other if we could. But we had to be cautious to make sure we followed strict health protocols. Everyone sat 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 played Beethoven’s Symphonies No. 6 and No. 7 as well as works by the Canadian composers Kelly-Marie Murphy and Barbara Assiginaak.
“Before that performance, I worried we had been losing contact with ourselves individually and as a collective. Playing together again reminded us of who we are and what we love to do. That session helped us forget some of the terrible moments of the past year, and it gave us a glimpse of the brighter months ahead.
“We needed it. The early stages of planning the 2021-22 season were terrifying. As a cultural institution, I feel we have a duty to look forward, to give audiences something to anticipate. We needed 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 progress. There were so many unknowns. How many musicians could we have on stage? How many audience members? What would the restrictions require in several months’ time?
“The early stages of planning were overwhelming. For one, we couldn’t meet in person. All my interactions with the musicians, the artistic advisory committee, the CEO and various teams within the organization took place in video conferences. But little by little, as we began discussing and brainstorming and troubleshooting, a season began taking shape. I was thrilled by the musically adventurous ideas that members of the orchestra proposed, including several pieces I didn’t know myself and that made the programs more interesting and meaningful. Together we went through every single program of the 2021-22 season. Our guiding philosophy was to keep programming beloved classics alongside unfamiliar works that we love, many of them by exciting new Canadian composers.
“The season will ramp up gradually, like a crescendo. We begin on November 10 with a smaller orchestra—about 50 musicians rather than the usual 100 or more—playing Schubert and Haydn for a less-than-capacity audience, depending on restrictions at that time. Throughout the season, we’ll add more musicians and spectators until we reach our grand finale in June: a concert featuring Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, the Ode to Joy. It’s one of the best-known symphonies ever composed, a celebration of humanity and resilience. After the pandemic, I think it’s exactly what we need.”