Strings of Summer / Songs of Summer
Toronto Summer Music Festival's new Artistic Director Douglas McNabney talks about his vision for the future
Joseph K. So
Toronto-born violist Douglas McNabney is a man on a mission. Last September, he took over as Artistic Director of the Toronto Summer Music Festival replacing Agnes Grossmann, who had led the fledging organization since 2006. In the few short years under Grossmann, TSMF and its accompanying Academy have developed a loyal following in a city not exactly brimming with summer classical music. Now as her successor, it’s McNabney’s mandate to continue its tradition of excellence, while keeping the organization on a firm financial footing. Given the fragility of Toronto’s recovery from the last recession, the increasingly “niche market” nature of classical music, not to mention the thunder-stealing, high profile Black Creek Summer Music Festival with its big advertising budget, TSMF faces major challenges. Success calls for a leader with vision, acumen, ingenuity, dedication, and good old-fashioned hard work. Dynamic, articulate, erudite and personable, Douglas McNabney combines experience in arts administration (he directed Quebec’s Domaine Forget for ten years) with first-hand knowledge as a respected chamber musician, the very qualities that make him a good fit. McNabney has garnered the confidence of Jane Smith, former board member and a driving force behind TSMF: “Douglas has, in a few months, built upon Agnes' exemplary foundation to a new level. As an international chamber player and teacher, he counts all the best chamber musicians as colleagues. His emphasis on performance within the revised Academy will see TSM "Fellows" in mainstage concerts playing with their Mentors in a true collaboration. I am most excited by the Art of Song program which Douglas rightly views as an integral part of chamber music.”
Two weeks before the opening, McNabney took time out from his busy schedule for a chat. Over a quick bite and an espresso at a local café around the corner from TSMF’s modest office on Bathurst Street, McNabney spoke candidly about his new job and the challenges facing TSMF. With mere weeks to go before opening night, the inevitable cancellation reared its ugly head. The American soprano Christine Brewer has bowed out of her song recital for health reasons. McNabney was philosophical: “this is part and parcel of running a festival. For the 10 years at Domaine Forget, every season inevitably problems of one sort or another arose – artists couldn’t arrive because of visa problems, sudden deaths, births… Every occasion like this becomes an opportunity. We’ll be looking at somebody unknown to Toronto audiences. This will be an occasion to discover something new for Toronto, a bit like what we are doing with (pianist) Kirill Gerstein. He’s one of the new strong voices…a major artist.”
On July 15, TSMF announced that soprano Kiera Duffy http://www.kieraduffy.com/
and tenor Nicholas Phan http://www.nicholas-phan.com/
will replace Brewer in the August 4 recital. True to his word, McNabney has engaged two artists new to Toronto audiences.
Duffy and Phan are two young singers with very promising careers.
The soprano was featured in the 2007 Met documentary The Audition
. She will be singing Strauss songs, while Nicholas Phan will sing Schumann’s Liederkreis
and Britten’s Winter’s Words
The two will also sing a few duos as well]
LSM: Toronto doesn’t have a strong tradition of summer classical music, yet TSMF has in a few short years managed to develop a loyal following. What accounts for its success? What do you think are the strengths of TSMF, and what’s your vision for the future?
DM: When I was first approached for this position, I looked at what has gone well in the past. It’s obvious that chamber music was extremely strong – it had the best students and the best audiences. The solo recitals also did well, and there was a huge continent of the public interested in voice. So it makes sense to do an academy combining chamber music and the art of the song – these two go together really well. It’s often said that art song is to vocal music what chamber music is to instrumental music – it’s a nice pairing. We also have incredible fundraisers – they’ve been so effective with the private sector. The support is extraordinary – I’m in awe! We’re still young, so government support is where we have to work on if we want to expand. For the long term, we have the potential to expand, especially in Koerner Hall with its great location and great acoustics, the perfect size for giving our audience a high quality experience. At some point in the future TSMF will expand its horizons and move into the orchestral world.
LSM: Any plan to revive the opera program? I am thinking of the very enjoyable Ariadne auf Naxos...
DM: Not in the immediate future…long term yes. You’ve picked a really successful production. To do it well, it takes a lot of our resources and you need to do only opera, in places like Santa Fe and Glimmerglass. Otherwise you get a very uneven production because of the differences in the level of the voices and in the pit. I can’t see us hiring an orchestra or producing an opera. What we welcome is someone else’s productions. To bring opera back to Toronto Summer Music, we’ll need to partner with other organizations like Haliburton, Glimmerglass, Canadian Opera, which is blank in the summer. Toronto Summer Music can act as the host of productions of others.
LSM: So partnership is what you are looking for?
DM: Absolutely! Putting together partnerships is the key. That’s what we’re already doing. I’ve managed to convince Roman (Borys) to take us to Ottawa Chamberfest, and Domaine Forget is taking us for a concert. We do all our classes at the U of T Faculty of Music, and we are bringing students from all over the country and they get to see the facility and meet the staff. We are also booking more performances at RCM’s Koerner Hall…
LSM: What about programming? What do you have planned for the next few seasons?
DM: This year it’s heart of the repertoire – the Romantic Period. Next year we’ll move into the music of the nations, the national identities in music, music influenced by the folk idioms…Russian, Spanish, and the Bohemian composers. From there we’ll do “music of the Colonies”. I’d love to do music of England, France, Spain, and Italy, and how this music found its way into North America. That’s three years from now.
LSM: I noticed that you recently played a piece by George Crumb. What are you thoughts on new music? Do you plan to program something like this in TSMF? Canadian audiences, especially older audiences, tend to be resistant to contemporary music. At classical music concerts these days, the auditorium is mostly a sea of gray hair...
DM: I loved playing that George Crumb piece.
Introducing new music? At some point, yes, but we have to find the right formula, to make sure we have the public with us. New music is a difficult sell. As to old audiences - I go to experimental theatre and the halls are always full of young people.
I want to see these people in the halls for new music as well. Do you know that people spend almost twice as much on arts events than on sporting events?
The statistics are there (http://www.hillstrategies.com/
) – if somebody has not heard a classical music concert by age 18, they’ll never go. But if they’ve gone to one symphony concert by age 18, then when they are 55 or 60, they might
go to something like Black Creek Festival because it’s such a big thing.
But they have to have gone to at least one concert…it only takes one! How to get young people to classical music is my big challenge.
Funny thing is, Romantic music (in this year’s TSMF) is all about youth – unrequited love, passion and sorrows of young Werther etc., but we have old people on stage and old people in the audience.
We have as part of our chamber music institute this year where young musicians in the academy play with their mentors on stage.
We have a series of concerts like this – it’s the Marlboro (Music) formula.
It’s the best way to teach young people about tradition, and the mentors also rediscover the excitement and enthusiasm of youth.
Once we get young people on stage, we can get young people in the audience…
LSM: If interest in classical music may be dwindling in the general population, it’s certainly not true in the non-European immigrant communities. Have you thought of reaching out to them?
DM: Yes, especially the Asian communities. Do you know in China, they open a concert hall a week? We want someone from the Asian communities on our board. Next year, we have Dong-Suk Kang, a leading violinist in Korea. He has the Seoul Spring Chamber Music Festival and he’s coming for a week and bringing five of his musicians. We hope to build around that, and bring in the whole of Toronto’s Korean community. We are trying to get the Russian community to come out to hear Kirill Gerstein. Building our audience means building connections to the public that actually listens to this music. That’s what we have to move towards.