La Scena Musicale

Saturday, 29 June 2013

In Focus: Douglas McNabney and Toronto Summer Music Festival 2013

Melodies of Summer
TSMF Artistic Director Douglas McNabney ponders the challenges and opportunities of the 2013 Season

by Joseph So

TSMF Artistic Director Douglas McNabney (Photo: Bo Huang)

Confucius is reputed to have said that "music produces so much pleasure that humankind cannot survive without it."  If that's true, then it mystifies me that the musical season in Toronto lasts only from September to June, with the summer months a veritable cultural desert. How are we to survive?  (I am only half joking...)  It used to be that to get one's fill, the only option was to get out of town, to the likes of  Elora, Guelph, Parry Sound, and more recently to Haliburton, Campbellford or further afield to places like Lewiston, Chatauqua and Cooperstown stateside. 

But thankfully this sad situation is a thing of the past. Regrettably the Black Creek Festival turned out to be a one-season wonder, but the Toronto Summer Music Festival is very much alive and well, and in its eighth season of enriching our musical lives during the dog days of summer. It has a famously loyal following, and for the past three years, it has benefited from the brilliant leadership of its Artistic Director Douglas McNabney. A native of Toronto, violist McNabney is a renowned chamber musician and an experienced arts administrator, having been at the helm of the Domaine Forget Music Festival and Academy for five seasons, and presiding over the Haydn 2009 project at the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal.  Equally important is his experience as a teacher - he's currently Associate Professor of the Strings Section in the Department of Performance at McGill University. In the short three years since he replaced Agnes Grossmann as the Artistic Director of Toronto Summer Music Festival and Academy in August 2010, McNabney has continued its tradition of excellence, at the same time breaking new grounds through broadening the audience base and expanding repertoire. Handsome, smart, affable, and media-savvy, Douglas McNabney is a superb spokesman for TSMF.  When he was in town in May for a sneak preview of the 2013 TSMF at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, we sat down at a nearly Starbucks for a chat:    

LSM:  Can this be the third time that we're doing an interview? It seems like only yesterday when we talked about your vision for TSMF...
DM:  It’s amazing how quickly that time goes by, but then when you think back and realize how much has been accomplished in three years, it’s extraordinary. We have come a long way in a short time.

LSM: Before we talk about this year's festival, I would like your thoughts on how things went last year.
DM:  We had some fabulous concerts. One of the highlights for me was the recital of Gerald Finley - what an artist!  He's such an amazing recitalist. He has such an intimate sense of communication, yet he's communicating to a thousand people in the entire hall.  It was at Koerner...I wished we had a thousand people in the hall (laughs)... It's very difficult to sell art song. 

LSM: Why is art song such a hard sell?  
DM: I think it is the repertoire - it's an acquired taste. People are not familiar with other languages, and the whole aesthetic of it is difficult for some people. We don’t have the cultural background. You have to make a bit of effort to get the basics of it.  But when you think of what art song was (in its day) - it was like popular music now. It’s a three or four minute song, usually based on love (unrequited etc.)

LSM: I am so glad you are still soldiering on with art of the song...  
DM: Oh yes, more than ever! I am totally convinced this is what young singers need in their training today. It is a unique contribution to the education of young singers in Toronto. There are other programs elsewhere nationally. What we don’t have enough are these art songs programs. For two weeks, young singers can get out of that opera world where they sing as loudly as they can at all times. In Art of the Song, they discover moments of true connection with the sentiment of the poetry and communicating that to the audience. One of my highlights last year was the masterclass of Gerald Finley. He got the young singer to sing quietly....he said to them "that’s too loud, sing quieter… no, even quieter." He got them to sing so quietly that you can sense everyone in the hall was listening. The hall became so amazingly focused on the voice. Gerald said it’s at the lowest level where one is the most expressive. For me, the art song is about communication at an intimate level, where the truest and most sincere form of communication (takes place). It’s a lovely counterpart to chamber music - it has the same aesthetic as chamber. Playing in intimate circumstances, connections between friends, like between pianist and the singer. Between the four or five instrumentalists. Once you have established the intimate connection, then you can share with the audience.

LSM: What else were you really pleased with last year?
DM: There were many... we had the Nash Ensemble - wonderful! And the Seoul Spring Festival Ensemble, they gave an amazing performance of the Franck Quintet. Dong Suk Kang is a top Korean violinist.  

LSM: One of the ideas you introduced at TSMF is to have a "festival theme" each year. What is it this year? 
DM: This year the theme is La belle epoque, a fabulous moment in the history of western culture (from 1870 to the start of WWI). It was totally unique. Paris was the center in terms of education, science, culture - the entire world came to Paris. We are exploring the music of that period, one that marked the beginning of French music. Before that, there wasn't a lot of French Romantic music in the 1800's in France, it was all Germanic music. You would hear Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, Schumann. But beginning with Saint-Saens and Cesar Franck and the Societe Nationale de Musique in 1871, it established a French aesthetic.  After that, with Faure, Debussy, Ravel, you have an effervescence of French music from late19th century on.  That’s what we are looking at this year.
Katia and Marielle Labeque (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)

LSM: You have quite a few headliners this year...  
DM: Yes, lots of French artists, including Labeque Sisters.  They are doing this incredibly interesting project, very thoughtful, intelligent approach to a movement that has gotten a bad rap - musical minimalism. It's a sort of style of music people love to hate. In the first half of their program, they are exploring music of Satie, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Arvo Part. In the second part they look at the influence of minimalism on popular genres, bring their band on stage and showing the influence of minimalism on the music of Radio Head and Sonic Youth. For the first time in TSMF, there'll be a rock band on stage! The Labeque Sisters are wonderful artists, glamorous of course, but also very sincere. I am impressed at how thoughtful their current project is. It’ll be fun to have the Festival go in a different direction by having a rock band on stage.

LSM: Are you still doing audience outreach?  
DM: Yes, we are still doing the outreach concerts. The most interesting aspect this year is the series we are calling 'Shuffle' on Wednesdays to Fridays at 5 pm at Heliconian Hall. The idea came to me in an article by Alex Ross in the New York Times. He was talking about how the shuffle functions in an ipod has changed our way of listening to music. You get one movement of something and you get a mixture of genres. Of course it is not the way I listen to music, but I thought, there are people who do listen to music that way.   

LSM: A lot of purists would balk against that... 
DM: That’s right. I have no illusions; it's not necessarily the kind of series that our committed audience will go to. We are branching out and hope to reach another public and bring something interesting to them. Classical music, world music, jazz, one movement at a time, short, at the end of the day, not too challenging. The idea is to bring people in to listen to all kinds of music. I think this is a long term thing.  Performing will be some of the festival artists, some young artists, and some invited guests coming in to do things. It will be very interesting.

Trio Pasquier Pidoux Pennetier (Photo: Toronto Summer Music Festival)

LSM: Can you say a few words about your opening night program?
DM: Pasquier Pidou and Pennetier are heroes of mine. Three great French musicians; they have performed all over the world but never in Toronto as a trio. They are icons in France, their recordings and teachings. Just about every young musicians (violinists, pianists, cellists) has come through their classes. I thought since we’ve got a program centered on French music, we might as well go to the source and bring these three musicians to come and play Ravel and Faure Trios for us. They are also playing some Russian music, a really important thread in this years program – the Russian and French connection. Gryphon Trio is doing Debussy and the songs of Moussorgsky with Robert Pomakov, a transcription by Gary Kushesa. Debussy was influenced by Russian music and he had high esteem for Moussorgsky. We also have a nod to Nijinsky, Diaghilev and Stravinsky. (To celebrate) the 100th anniversary of the Rite of Spring we have Anagoson and Kinton in Stravinsky’s own transcription for piano four hands.  

LSM: What other concerts do you want to highlight?
DM: One of the other concerts I hope will be very popular is the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, they are fantastic musicians... 
Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (Photo:

LSM: Of course guitar was not known as a concert instrument…. 
DM: Not until the 20th century when we have the Spanish music of course... 

LSM: Are they going to be amplified?  
DM: I hope not. I told them they don’t have to, depending on the hall. In Koerner it should not be necessary. We’ll try out the acoustics.  They are doing some transcriptions of Bizet, Stravinsky and other things as a nod to the Festival theme, and then they’ll branch out to do their own eclectic mix of Cuban-African-Brazilian repertoire. They are great musicians and entertainers. I hope this concert will bring in a larger public. This is our preoccupation, to grow our public, and bring in new people. We have established our credentials in chamber music, art song. Now we need to reach out to serve a larger public. The long term health of the festival depends on expanding.

LSM: I haven’t asked you this, but I sort of got the sense that last year’s attendance was down….
DM: It was down a little bit… everybody else was down as well. It’s hard to know what the reasons are. For classical music now, it’s harder to reach out through traditional media. There are fewer journalists working full time in the mainstream media. I think television was never conducive to talking about music. So promoting our activity to the public is a dubious exercise. There are four million people in the GTA, and we just need 500 to fill the hall (laughs)!  How do you reach that 500, or a 1000 for Koerner?  It’s not an impossible challenge...

LSM: Why is it so hard to get people to come to the concerts?
DM: Everyone says everything has to be done now through social media; you reach people with Facebook and Twitter.  But our audience?  It's really interesting. At the Festival last year I got up at one concert and asked the audience - 'how many of you have a Facebook account?'  Out of 600 or 700 people in the hall, maybe 80 to 100 hands went up. I then said how many had a Twitter account. Two people!  This is our dilemma. The demographics of our audience aren't really into social media; their first choice of getting information is print media. 

LSM: How about classical music radio like 96.3 FM?  TSMF should get on the radio...
DM: We did, but we need to get on it more. They have been very good to us but we need to do more. Growing the public is a challenge involving effective marketing. 

LSM: I recall that last year you were thinking of outreaching to the multicultural communities. Are you getting your Asian ethnic audiences?
DM: No. Last year with the Seoul Spring Festival Ensemble, I thought doing a concert like this would bring in the (Korean) audience. It didn’t really had the effect I was hoping for. The Russian program, with the Borodin Quartet, didn’t reach the Russians either.  We want to reach the people who are most susceptible to this kind of music. We have tickets for young people up to age 35.

LSM: Maybe you need to promote it in Chinese media
DM: Yes, a little bit more. We had a little bit of coverage last year but we need to do more. We've made a good connection last year we hope to follow up.

LSM: Changing the subject - What is next year's theme going to be? 
DM: Well, it's Music of the Americas. It is one of the possibilities. In programming, you start with certain ideas, and the artists and the programs they want to present. Before you know it, sometimes things have become something else. This year it sort of naturally became French music, and next year we are starting with music of the Americas. Its time we move into the 20th century completely.

LSM: The challenge for you would be to include some Canadian music, which is always a hard sell….
DM: Yes, and contemporary music in general. It's about marketing, finding the right angle, reassuring people that it would be interesting, that it won't be totally foreign and austere, and that it's worth the effort one puts into it.

LSM: In terms of the academy part, you are not short of good students are you...  
DM: My goodness no!  We are so thrilled with the level of the students. When I revamped the academy, I had a 5 year plan. After two years we are already there. We have a reputation of our program that attract the best students. For the Art of the Song program, we have Elly Ameling coming; and Julius Drake. As young artists, to be able to work with someone like that for an entire week, what more can you ask for?  This is a golden opportunity for the young singers, and they recognize that... the applications are from all over.  I've spoken with Elly several times...she is so with it. She knows exactly what she wants from the students. It's going to be fantastic. 

Soprano Elly Ameling (Photo: Toronto Summer Music Festival)

LSM: Now you're into your third year, are you still as enthusiastic and energetic as you were when you first took this on?
DM: I should ask you! What do you think?

LSM: Absolutely!  You always come across as someone full of boundless energy...
DM: (Laughs)  It’s enormously interesting...all of this music is so fascinating. It's about ideas, about great music, and the people who do such an amazing job. No, I haven't lost the desire to share this interest of mine. 

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