Toronto Symphony Orchestra taps Gustavo Gimeno as new music director

At his first rehearsal with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra last February, Gustavo Gimeno knew it was also an audition.

The 42-year-old Spanish maestro recalls surprise at applause from TSO musicians during February audition

Spanish maestro Gustavo Gimeno is seen here guest conducting the TSO last February. (Marco Borggreve/Supplied)

At his first rehearsal with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra last February, Gustavo Gimeno knew it was also an audition.

The TSO, which was looking for a new conductor after the departure of Peter Oundjian, had invited Gimeno to be a guest-conductor.

Gimeno, 42, is a rapidly rising Spanish star in the firmament of classical music. At the first rehearsal, after a few bars of hearing the orchestra play through the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 4, he says he was filled with admiration.

"Wow, they play really great. They are wonderful," he recalled.

But it was hard to know what the musicians thought of him, Gimeno told CBC Radio's Metro Morning.

"It's very much like a relationship," he explained. "They were so professional and so serious, you never know which conclusions to take."

Start in Toronto during 2020-21 season

A search committee comprised of about a dozen TSO musicians, board and staff members announced Monday night that Gimeno had signed a five-year contract, starting in the 2020-21 season, as the TSO's new music director.

But for Gimeno, his first insight that the feelings between orchestra and conductor were mutual came after that first Toronto performance on Feb. 14. 

Gustavo Gimeno spoke with CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Tuesday. (CBC)

"When the concert was finished and the applause was there and I realised the orchestra was enthusiastically applauding me. I thought, whoa!," said Gimeno. "I was surprised. I didn't expect it. They were overwhelming enthusiastic and applauding and smiling. So that's the moment when I maybe realised."

Early career

Gimeno started his orchestral career as a percussionist from 2001 to 2013 with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. This is not the usual trajectory for a conductor, who are more likely to rise from the ranks of violinists and pianists.

Instead, Gimeno explains, he left his Spanish homeland for Amsterdam, determined to be "as good a musician as I could be."

He also studied orchestral conducting at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam and participated in conducting master classes.

But he never dreamed of becoming a conductor, he said, assuming it was too exalted a position to aspire to.

"To be completely sincere, I didn't dare, not even dreaming about it," said Gimeno. "I have too much respect for the profession. It's extremely difficult. I wouldn't make plans for future career as a conductor."

Wow, they play really great. They are wonderful.- Gustavo Gimeno

Those goals changed after his debut performance with the Concertgebouw in 2014. He was asked to step in at the the last minute when Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons had to cancel a concert series.

"I would say that's one of the key moments in my life," said Gimeno.

"I felt this was a dream. This might not, will not happen again, probably. So I tried to get through it, having as much fun, doing as good job as possible."

The next morning, he was overwhelmed by ecstatic reviews, phone calls and emails. "Now in perspective, I realise there was a before and after that moment," he said.

Conductor at Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra

Gimeno is currently the principal conductor at Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra and travels constantly. He is a guest conductor for some of the world's great orchestras — from the Munich Philharmonic, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, to recent debuts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, and upcoming engagements with the symphony orchestras of Houston, St. Louis, Seattle and the London Philharmonic.

Gimeno was mentored by two of the greatest Mahler interpreters, conductors Claudio Abbado and Bernard Haitink, and will in turn shape the TSO's performances of the epic masterpieces by the Austrian Romantic composer.

For anyone new to a concert hall, said Gimeno, listening to the music of Mahler impresses listeners first with the sheer dimensions of an orchestra.

"But it is life in itself," said Gimeno. "There are moments that are extremely tender, moments that are extremely tragic or powerful, other moments when it is delicate."

I experienced it as a warm, cultivated, transparent sound, and with culture in the playing.- Gustavo Gimeno

Sir Andrew Davis will continue serving as the TSO's interim artistic director until the end of the 2019-20 season. Meanwhile, Gimeno hopes his new home will be within walking distance of Roy Thomson Hall. He has already started circling neighbourhoods on a map of Toronto, planning his first walking tour of the city.

But that sense of being at home with the orchestra, said Gimeno, was there the first time he rehearsed with the TSO.

When asked to describe the particular qualities of his future orchestral home, he says, "I experienced it as a warm, cultivated, transparent sound, and with culture in the playing — with musical intelligence and understanding of the music."

Gustavo Gimeno has signed a five-year contract, starting in the 2020-21 season. (Jag Gundu/Supplied)

With files from CBC Radio's Metro Morning