La Scena Musicale

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Toronto Summer Music Festival 2014 - a Preview


Toronto Summer Music Festival 2014 – A Preview

By Joseph So

Summertime, and the music is lovely...”

With apologies to Ira Gershwin for my corny appropriation (and alteration) of his lyrics from the divine Porgy and Bess, I must say it sums up perfectly my feeling of the state of summer music in our fair city of Toronto. For years, one would have to travel far and wide in the summer to get a classical music fix. But this is no longer the case – the TO summer is no longer the musical desert of yore. Yes I still make my annual treks to a few select places for opera – I had just returned from the Glyndebourne Festival and the Münchner Opernfespiele. But now I make sure that I am in town for TSMF (Toronto Summer Music Festival), a three-week celebration of classical music-making of a very high order. This year, more than ever, the offerings are enticing indeed.

The theme of TSMF 2014 is The Modern Age, a period that loosely encompass classical music in the first quarter of the 20th century, give and take a decade or so at either end. This takes us from around 1890 through to the 1930's, a period when music underwent extremely exciting transformations from tonality to serialism, culminating in the works of the so-called Second Viennese School. A look at the program of 2014 TSMF shows the emphasis however is on tonal music, highlighting the works of Late Romantic musical giants the likes of Strauss and Mahler, to the Impressionism of Ravel and Debussy, the Russian music masters Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky and Prokofiev, as well as the great English composers Elgar and Vaughan Williams. Also entering into the equation is the rise of popular musical idioms such as folk and jazz. With such a broad stroke, the 2014 edition of TSMF is ambitious, audacious, and exciting, with something for every musical taste. There are plenty of programming highlights to be sure, so my choices here reflects my personal taste. For full details, go to http://www.torontosummermusic.com/

Pianist Beatrice Rana

The two areas of focus of the 2014 TSMF remain chamber music and art of the song. The Festival opens with the Emerson String Quartet in a recital at the acoustically friendly Koerner Hall on July 22. Chamber cognoscenti will remember them as having played so beautifully on the soundtrack of The Late Quartet. Now we can hear them in person in a program of Beethoven, Schubert and Britten. The brilliant Italian pianist Beatrice Rana, winner of the 2011 Montreal International Musical Competition (Piano Edition) and the Silver Medal of the 2013 Van Cliburn Competition, will give a recital on July 23 at Walter Hall, in a program of Bach, Chopin and Prokofiev. The New York based Orion String Quartet will be in town July 24 for a program of Haydn, Brahms, and Dvorak, with special guest pianist Peter Serkin (who is a great pianist in his own right of course but old-timers like yours truly still think of him as son of the great Rudolf). It's extremely exciting for the Festival to present soprano Sondra Radvanovsky in a recital of songs and arias, including the works of Beethoven, Verdi, Cilea, Rachmaninoff, Duparc and Copland. (July 31 Koerner Hall). While not all the songs fall within the Festival theme, Radvanovsky is such a wonderful singer that even if she sings the telephone book, it'll be worth hearing! Anyone who saw her magnificent performance as Elisabetta in the recent COC Roberto Devereux will know what I mean.

Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky

For the Art of the Song, audiences can experience the artistry of a great singer, British baritone Christopher Maltman together with the dean of collaborative pianist Graham Johnson on August 6 at Walter Hall. I had the great good fortune of hearing Maltman just last week, as Lescaut in Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Part of a stellar cast that included the hottest tenor on the planet Jonas Kaufmann and the super-glamorous Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais, Maltman more than held his own in a rather thankless role. The theme of Maltman's recital, The Soldier – from Severn to Somme, is one of remembrance, of the victors and victims of war in the songs by Mahler, Mussorgsky, Butterworth, Ives, Finzi and Poulenc. Graham Johnson is one of three artists giving public masterclasses as part of the Art of the Song program. The other two are baritones Francois LeRoux and Sanford Sylvan. Maltman will appear in a Musicians Up Close event on August 5th 2 pm in Walter Hall, just before the Johnson masterclass. Perhaps the biggest coup of TSMF 2014 is the presence of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Principals of the TSO will give a chamber recital of works by Dohnanyi, Mahler and Strauss (August 7 Walter Hall). The big event is the Closing Night Concert with the full TSO forces on August 12 at Koerner Hall before they leave for their European tour. The participation of the TSO this summer is surely a watershed that will make TSMF a major musical force to be reckoned with in the future.

In late May, I had the opportunity to sit down with TSMF Artistic Director Douglas McNabney for a wide-ranging talk. This was our fourth pre-festival talk, since his taking over the TSMF from Agnes Grossmann. He was in town to present the noon-hour preview concert at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, and spent the day busy dealing with TSMF business. Ever friendly, cordial and totally unflappable, McNabney fielded my questions with thoughtful, articulate answers. As usual, we reviewed the past season as well as looked a little into the future:

TSMF Artistic Director Douglas McNabney


LSM: Let's begin by first looking back at last year's festival. Would you say your goals were accomplished?
DM: Oh yes, very much so! Last summer we had a 30% increase in attendance, and our advance ticket sales this year are ahead of last year.

LSM: What do you think accounted for this big jump in attendance?
DM: The Festival has become better known, and we don't have any competition in the summer. I really believe the festival theme, La belle epoque, was partly responsible. Paris at the turn of the century...it caught the imagination of the public. It's a thread that ran through all the concerts.

LSM: That's great. Looking back at last season, what do you think could have been done better or can be improved upon in the future?
DM The big challenge is always reaching our public. We have 1200 seats to sell in Koerner Hall and 500 seats in Walter Hall. You would think if we could reach our target audience, we shouldn't have difficulty filling these seats. The traditional print and broadcast media have changed and they no longer pay as much attention (to classical music.) This year we've done something really interesting to increase the notoriety of the Festival. We've got the involvement of Toronto Symphony Orchestra...

LSM: That's quite a coup! How did you manage to get them on board? It should raise the profile of TSMF.
DM: They've put us in their season brochure. They announced the European tour and the first stop is Toronto Summer Music. We print 30,000 copies of our brochure; and they print 500,000! It always surprises me how many in Toronto have never been to the Festival, but that's only normal as it's only our 9th season. We're really beginning to establish ourselves, having events like the TSO put us into the spotlight. From there we can do more interesting things. We are really punching above our weight, to invite an organization like the TSO. A lot of it is based on personal connections... I know Andrew Shaw and Loie Fallis very well. These are people I've gone to school with. There is a trust there.

LSM: Part of building audience is through outreach. How's that going?
DM: The big thing we did last year was the “Shuffle” and it was a hit. It's based on the shuffle function of the ipod. For the first two years (of my tenure), we called it the Friday Night Experiment. I was always looking for an occasion to do something a little different, an alternate style. Some of our public would go to this and other public would come and it would be an interesting mix, and through that people may buy tickets to the regular season. (We found out) no, that's not how it works. Last year we found the right way – marketing it as almost a different festival. We have to go for a different public, serving a different public. It increases the notoriety of Festival and when people talk about TSMF they can find something in it for them, and it's not going to be the Emerson String Quartet, and it's fun and it's very high quality. These are not garage bands... it's going to be world music and serious jazz bands. I think we're doing the right thing.

LSM: How do you do the promotion for these new, alternate events?
DM: Last year we did the promotion in and around Heliconian Hall (the concert venue) in Yorkville, mostly with sandwich boards. It's 'Pay What You Can.' The Yorkville area is teeming with people; our concerts in Heliconian Hall were frequently full – we couldn't seat everybody for one of the tango shows. It's fun and different. We bring some of the Festival young artists into the program. They really love it – it's different and eclectic. They come and and play just one movement of the work. The idea is to do something a little different while maintaining the quality. It worked well last year and we're going to continue with it.

LSM: I'm curious – how did you get Sondra Radvanovsky on board?
DM: I work with Roman Borys of the Ottawa Chamberfest, two of us work together as a package. It means she's taking one week out of her holiday to do this, but she thought it was an interesting enough proposition. The details are still under negotiation. [Note: since the interview, the program has been announced, and it includes Ah Perfido! Beethoven's formidable concert aria, plus several operatic chestnuts and some of the best known songs by Rachmaninoff and Duparc]

LSM: I noticed that you are offering song recitals with your Art of the Song fellows...
DM: Yes. In the past, we've always had the Art of Song participants to sing within Mentors and Fellows programs. Many people complained that it wasn't enough of an occasion to highlight the singers. This year they'll have two concerts. Eight singers and five pianist, and we'll get to hear them all.

LSM : What are you most proud of in this year's festival?
DM: Bringing the Toronto Symphony is a huge undertaking. It's a tremendous financial responsibility, much bigger than anything the Festival had undertaken in the past. I had to work really hard to convince the board to do this. The TSO has been helping us...it's a wonderful collaborative effort, to help us reach potential new donors. For the TSO, the alternative was to do their regular, free concert at David Pecaut Square. That reaches a big public, but this way they get to play in Koerner Hall for the first time. There's a whole video team assembled to document the concert and their tour.

LSM: I've noticed that there is a strong Asian presence among the Art of the Song program participants, and there seems to be more Asians in the audience for both the symphony and the opera. Are you trying to tap into that?
DM: Yes we do have a very strong Asian presence (among the fellows) this year. We still don't have the (Asian) public yet. Having them as fellows, we hope we're going to bring in the audience. We have an Asian board member – he's young, energetic and well connected. We are working on building long term relationships with the communities – it's building trust and it's always long term.

LSM: As a voice fan, I must say I've really been impressed with the wonderful people you've brought in for the Art of the Song program, despite the disappointments of a few cancellations in the past...
DM: This year we have Christopher Maltman here to do a very well thought out program, with a real theme that takes you through World War One. Graham Johnson is here for a week to give masterclasses. This is just our 4th Academy, already we've had Sir Thomas Allen, Gerald Finley, Elly Ameling, Roger Vignoles, and Julius Drake, all amazing artists and teachers. The only one missing is Malcolm Martineau and I'm working on it!

LSM: Let's talk a little about this year's theme, The Modern Age. I've noticed that the programming have pretty much stayed within the boundaries of tonality rather than venturing into Serialism, which is of course the major musical transformation of this period. Can you say something about that?
DM: You know, one of my big passions is Schönberg and the Second Viennese School. I am interested in the whole creative process, his whole voyage, how he got into it following the horrors of World War One, its parallels in the visual arts, the Cubist movement and the German Expressionism, etc. But I won't be doing that as part of TSMF. We're doing the Chamber Symphony, still very tonal, but that's as far as we'll get this year. We'll have some of our young artists do this repertoire. This material has to be presented in a special way so as not to lose my audience...

LSM: Looking into the future – what would next year's theme be?
DM: It's Music of the Americas, a very rich and diverse thematic area with lots of possibilities. We'll take some of the American composers who studies in France – everybody from America studied in Paris in those days. Just Copland is a lot of fantastic music; we can also broaden into jazz. The problem next year is to limit it to the great music.

LSM: Thank you and my best wishes for a very successful Festival.




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