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Interview: Douglas McNabney and the art of the Toronto Summer Music Festival

By Michael Vincent on June 30, 2014

Douglas McNabney
Douglas McNabney

Running a music festival is no easy task.  It requires a herculean resolve that can resist the forces of a downward economy, especially in a city that likes to head for cottage country every summer. But Douglas McNabney doesn’t seem phased. After all he’s been doing this for a long time, first, as Artistic Director of Domaine Forget Music and Dance Academy (2001-2004), and now, with the Toronto Summer Music Festival. As he will tell you, it’s a labour of love.

Last week I had the chance to chat with Douglas about this year’s festival line-up. Calling from my home near Burlington, there was an early summer thunderstorm on my end. On his end in Toronto, he reported it sunny, without a cloud in the sky. By the end of the phone call, it was sunny on my end, and raining on his end. Go figure.

It all comes together in so many different ways…

MT: So this is your 4th year at the helm of the Toronto Summer Music Festival. How has it been going so far?

It’s a really fun organisation, and it’s very small. It’s still not all that well-known. I’m endlessly surprised by the musicians that I meet – people who I would think have all kinds of interests about music and what’s going on have never heard of us, but I think we’re gradually becoming better known, and you know we’ve got this perfect little niche for us, nothing happens in Toronto the middle of the summer.

This year, in particular with the Toronto Symphony, that’s something I’ve been pushing for since day one when I arrived, and we made it happen. I think this will be a big step for the festival in terms of getting better recognition… Getting out of the just the chamber music and art song and getting into the larger musical forms as well.

MT: What’s the most challenging part of running the festival for you?

The challenges always happen on two levels: a musical one, and a financial one. I would have to say that the financial aspect is a constant preoccupation. Since I’ve been here, we’ve managed to grow our budget and base support, but because we are so small, we have to be very careful. The way to create a festival ethic has been one of the other challenges. Now we are working towards a model where we have more events closer together; it’s only three weeks. I’ve also introduced another series of concerts (our shuffle concerts) that we have at 5-o’clock in the afternoon for a different public, and also our insider events, so we get this daily schedule of things. This is where I’d like to see it move, bring in people from out-of-town, and come to this festival and take in 4 or 5 days of all kinds of activities.

MT: How does the Academy fit into all this?

The idea is to really give young artists, after their formative years, what they really need, which are opportunities to perform alongside the mentors (our festival artists)… In downtown Toronto we can provide a true festival environment where there’s a real public and fantastic artists that they’re playing alongside of. And I think our academy is now well placed to become a significant part of training for young artists in Canada, particularly in Chamber music.

MT: The Festival has done a number of outreach concerts in the past, will you be doing those as well this year?

That’s right, we have the concerts that happen at Heliconian Hall. The idea is to take the music to where the people are. Toronto is just teaming with tourists every summer, and we are developing other new opportunities for young artists to perform outside of the regular festival venues… Everybody wins with this, the public gets the opportunity to hear free concerts, and our young performers get to play for a real audience.

MT: Let’s talk about the theme for this year’s festival, which is the modern age. How does this theme contrast against last year’s theme, which also focused on music from late 19th and early 20th centuries – but more specifically French music?

Yes well, last year was directly centred just on what was happening in France. Of course Paris was the centre of much of the experimentation going and was the centre of artistic activity. We’re moving a little bit later away from France, and looking at some of the other currents. It’s a totally fascinating epic. We still haven’t fully come to terms with some of the movements that were born in the early 20th-century. We’re talking about the second Viennese school and the revolutions that were occasioned by German expressionism, and then Russia, with Prokofiev, (a real iconoclast,) and Rachmaninoff.

At the same time we have these movements, we have late-blooming romanticists, with Strauss and Mahler in Germany-Austria, and Elgar in England. It’s an unbelievable mix of genres and styles.

For me what was the most significant – and what is almost a chicken and egg syndrome, was the dissension of popular music with both radio and the phonograph. We really see this dichotomy at this point between high art music and popular music. We include some Jazz in our Shuffle Series, and even in our main series we have a Tango concert this year. There were dance movements, (the Charleston craze, and the Tango craze in the 20’s), that completely took over in Europe.

We’ve gone substantially outside of Paris, and you’re right it’s the same time period in some ways, but we’re going much later into the 20th century. We are not doing North America. That’s next summer, for the Pan Am Games. The festival theme is the thread that holds it all together, and next year we’ll be doing a lot of North American music. Every American composer was going to France to study. We’ll be tying them in as well, with Gershwin, and Ravel, and company like that.

MT: I was talking with John Miller recently from the Stratford Summer Music Festival, about the art of programming, and it was fascinating to hear about his process… How do you go about programming each season?

It comes together so many different ways. Booking the artists is one thing, but artists understandably have their programs that they have brought on tour for that season. You’ve got to find the artists who will play the works you want to hear, and then people who you want to hear, and then work their programs into the whole festival theme. It’s incredibly complex and nerve-racking, but somehow it all comes together miraculously.

MT: How do you find the time to do it?

[Laughs] well…

MT: And you teach fulltime!

Yes, that’s my day job at McGill. I just have so much fun seeing all this great music come together with amazing artists and watching the public. I love standing or sitting at the back of the hall, and watching it all happen. Being the enabler to put the artists together with the public playing great music is tremendously satisfying, and the actual moment when it happens is so gratifying that all the toil and trouble is so worth it.

MT: Do you take a break after the festival’s over just to have some time to yourself?

Yes, that’s also crucial at this time, and we miss a lot of this nowadays as we’ve forgotten the importance of time for reflection…To have a couple of weeks where you just sort of empty out and let the ideas somehow percolate is really important and I realize that more and more. Those couple of weeks are absolutely sacred.

MT: In the wake of social media, arts organizations seem to be shifting their promotional strategies. How has the festival been reacting to this?

Learning to use these tools is crucial to the success of the organization, especially in our field. Traditional media ignores us more and more, and it’s a bit of a dilemma right now because while there are no full-time critics anymore and the newspaper presence is minimal for festivals, especially with classical music, and of course the CBC is a disaster; I think they are down to less than 15 percent airtime now for classical music.

MT: So how do you reach your audience?

Everybody says well, social media, but our dilemma is that our audience is 67 years-old, most of which are not on social media… Walter Hall only has 500 seats – 1180 at Koerner Hall – we don’t have to reach that many people… we have to do it especially targeted, and social media is going to be the way that we do that. For our Academy this year, we didn’t publish or print brochures. We only did it online and through email, and online advertising.

MT: This is the way of the future I think, and it sounds like you’re ahead of the game on that.

Yes, and we have our App for the festival program which I love, it’s a great way to find your way though the events. Even 60 and 70 year-olds have smart phones now, and so it’s coming, and with the next generation there is no question that is the future.

MT: What can people expect to hear this year?

Opening night is the Emerson String Quartet, and the Beethoven Serioso quartet, Britten string quartet No. 2, one of my favorite quartets of Britten. Then they’re playing “Death and the Maiden.”

We’re welcoming back Paul Watkins, the new cellist with the Emerson Quartet. It will be the first time the Emerson Quartet appears with Paul in Toronto. Paul has totally rejuvenated the quartet, and he’s a generation younger than the founding members of the quartet so welcoming back Paul, a festival friend, should be a great occasion.

Then the next night we have Beatrice Rana, who I just adore. She makes me thing of a young Martha Argerich. She has such passion; she’s got it all. Again she’s playing a program of Prokofiev – the 6th Sonata this time, with a Bach Partita, and Chopin as well.

I managed to convince every artist to give me something that will tie in the festival theme somehow. Hearing a young player like this in her Toronto debut – we make a specialty of that at the festival. I do my best to try to bring unknowns.

The next night we have the Orion Quartet, and it’s a dynamite opening three nights.

And for Friday night, this is where I bring in the artists to individually to work with the students. The program for the Friday night is right in line with the Festival theme, and we’ve got the Frank Bridge Sextet, which is an amazing composer, and tremendously undervalued in my opinion. And we have Webern’s Langsamer Satz, and the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony, which is when things start to go awry.

MT: I see, so it’s chronological, from the Romantic Movement to the Modernist Era; the breakdown of tonality.

Right, the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony is still tonal, but it caused a ruckus. It’s the chamber version done by Berg for the Society of Public Performance, so it’s for piano quintet, basically.

Then Saturday, we start our Mentors and Fellows programs, and I’m hoping to get those on the web this year. For those concerts we didn’t know them in advance, and it was only ever decided at the beginning of the week what was going to be played. And it’s been one of the big complaints is that if people knew what was being played we could do an even better job of selling these concerts.

The repertoire that we’re hearing in the Mentors and Fellows over these three weeks includes the Suk piano quintet in g minor, that’s never heard, the Glazunov quintet for two cellos, Opus 39, The Eglar Piano Quintet, Bloch, First Piano Quintet, also rarely heard, and Weber’s Piano Quintet. I’m really thrilled about this. It’s never played – an 11 minute piece from 1907.

MT: I don’t think I know that one – Weber’s Piano Quintet?

Go online and listen to it. It’s a fantastic piece! This is the sort of music we can go into hidden corners of the library and pullout stuff that you’d never hear otherwise […] but at some point there has to be a place to do a Webern Quintet. Hindemith Clarinet Quintet, also a fabulous piece. Hindemith, as a name is well-known, but the music is not well-known.

MT: Right, he’s not programmed much at all.

Yes, Mathis der Maler, that’s all most people know. Then we have Vaughan Williams as well, and another piece by Bridge, the Piano Quintet in d minor, which is one of my favorites piano quintets as well. We hear all of these concerts on the Saturday, Mentors and Fellows.

These concerts are so exciting because we’ve got Martin Beaver from the Tokyo Quartet. He comes in and he plays with young artists who are playing a piece for the first time.

MT: What will he be playing?

He’s going to do the Kodály Second Quartet, which he’s played many times. But the young artists he’s working with have never heard the piece, let alone played it. So it’s an amazing interaction from both points of view because there’s something to be said about playing something for the first time. There’s a kind of passion and energy that inspires him. He says “oh yeah, I remember this.” And for the young people he playing with, it’s an immense experience with the repertoire.

The result of the audience is really, really something. This amazing energy watching these seasoned artists with repertoire that they can play backwards and forwards, playing with these kids for the first time. I call them kids but they’re really young emerging professionals – on the cusp.

MT: Are these in a masterclass setting, or a true concert?

These are true concerts, and the hook to get these young artists to come – they know they’re playing these works. That’s why I want to get the programs up so it doesn’t look like it’s a workshop – it’s not.

MT: It certainly looks like an amazing line-up this year, and I look forward to getting out there and hearing some of what’s in store for Toronto this summer.

Yes, I look forward to having you.

MT: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us this morning.

You’re welcome, Michael, take care. Bye.

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The Toronto Sumer Music Festival celebrates The Modern Age –and will highlight the music of Strauss, Rachmaninoff, and Prokofiev. This year’s Festival features many artists inlcuding Sondra Radvanovsky, Orion String Quartet with Peter Serkin, Emerson String Quartet, Miloš, and the Toronto Symphony in their first-ever appearance at Koerner Hall.

The Festival runs July 22, to August 12 at Walter Hall, Koerner Hall and Heliconian Hall.

For more information on the concerts or to purchase tickets call (416) 408-0208 or go to www.torontosummermusic.com.

 

Michael Vincent

Michael Vincent
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Michael Vincent

Michael Vincent is the Editor-in-chief Ludwig Van and CEO of Museland Media. He publishes regularly and writes occasionally. He has worked as a senior editor for over fifteen years and is a former freelance classical music critic for the Toronto Star. Michael holds a Doctorate in Music from the University of Toronto.
Michael Vincent
Follow me
Michael Vincent
Follow me

Michael Vincent

Michael Vincent is the Editor-in-chief Ludwig Van and CEO of Museland Media. He publishes regularly and writes occasionally. He has worked as a senior editor for over fifteen years and is a former freelance classical music critic for the Toronto Star. Michael holds a Doctorate in Music from the University of Toronto.
Michael Vincent
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