INTERVIEW | Reflections: Douglas McNabney Bids Farewell to Toronto Summer Music Festival

By Joseph So on May 16, 2016

TSMF’s departing Artistic Director Douglas McNabney reflects on the past and looks to the future.

Douglas McNabney Photo: Bo Huang
Douglas McNabney Photo: Bo Huang

It was our annual ritual. Every spring for the last five years, TSMF Artistic Director Douglas McNabney and I sat down for a chat to reflect on the previous season and to preview the one coming up. Out meeting this year took on a special meaning, one tinged with some sadness. It was announced at the end of March that the 2016 Festival running from July 14 to August 7 will be McNabney’s last at the helm, as its Artistic Director.

It came as a bit of a shock. The TSMF has done extremely well since he took over in 2010, receiving critical and audience accolades, ever-increasing attendance, a balanced budget and excellent fundraising result. So why is he leaving?  I took advantage of his whirlwind, one-day visit to Toronto in April for a quick chat. A few weeks after our meeting, TSMF announced the appointment of violinist and TSO Concertmaster Jonathan Crow as the incoming Artistic Director. McNabney will still be in charge of this year’s Festival, with the presence of Crow to ensure a smooth transition.  It was likely that by the time McNabney and I met for the interview, he probably had a good idea who his successor was going to be, but like any good CEO, his lips were sealed when it came to the media.

With a sneak preview of the new TSMF season coming up on Wednesday at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, it’s a good time to publish our interview. A native Torontonian, McNabney is Associate Professor of Chamber Music at McGill University in Montreal. This means he has been commuting to TSMF over the past six summers. In the press release announcing his farewell, McNabney was quoted as saying that given the current vitality of the Festival, the timing was right to hand over the responsibilities to a new Artistic Director.  I decided to ask him for the specifics, for his thoughts on his tenure, and what sage advice he may have for his successor:

JS: Speaking for myself and I think all the TSMF fans – we are going to miss you!

DM:  Of course it was a shock for everybody, especially the Board. It’s a normal thing. This will be my sixth season. Five was my original mandate, and I went a year further. For a Festival, it’s very important to have a renewal of contacts, artists, ideas. It’s good thing to have a new person taking over.

JS: Other than a renewal of TSMF and all that goes with it, what other reasons are there behind your leaving?   

DM: For me, I have a number of projects in Montreal. One looks at the horizon and there are only so many years left that one can devote to new projects. I am extremely proud of what we’ve built here in six years.  Things are in such good shape; it’s the perfect time in many ways to pass it on to someone else. I’ve built the organisation into such a going concern that it made it very difficult for me to run it from Montreal. To have a presence in Toronto is so important.  I can only come in twice a month and I can never see enough people. I think the next Artistic Director should be someone who’s present in Toronto, to go to donor events and be seen, this sort of thing. I took a part-time job and made it full-time, that’s the irony of it!

JS: You mentioned you have future projects – can you tell us about it? Does it have to do with you as a musician or as an administrator?

DM: I prefer to not say too much about it… it’s in Montreal. It has to do with me as a musician and as an administrator. Of course my lifelong preoccupation with young artists and giving them the opportunities – it’ll be a form of that. I ran Domaine Forget for ten years and then TSMF for another six years…

JS: Do you feel you’ve accomplished everything you’ve wanted to during your tenure at TSMF?

DM: [Pause] That’s an interesting question…I’ve never considered it under that point of view. The answer is ‘yes.’ That’s maybe one of the reasons why I’m happy to give it to another, maybe a younger person, someone with more energy, to take it to the next step. I have done everything I said I would do, including bringing in the community academy last year, which was a very important part of the history of TSM, for adult amateurs, as a way of building a community around the Festival. This year we are bringing back opera, Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia. Opera is something that many people at TSMF missed. I said I would never be in the business of producing opera which is a full-time occupation, where huge resources are needed and it’s very demanding in the context of a festival. I’ve always said we can present opera in partnership with other organisations.  This time, we’re partnering with Against the Grain Theatre and Banff Centre in cooperation with the Canadian Opera Company, an ideal situation. To put so much effort into it and only do it in Banff is a shame, so we’re bringing it back to Toronto for a single performance. It’s a chamber opera, not as onerous to put together, and the singers will get an incredible opportunity.

JS: That’s great news! As an opera lover, I really missed this part of TSMF. I still remember the Ariadne auf Naxos…

DM: To partner with ATG and COC to produce an opera in Toronto, everybody wins. It’ll be at the Winter Garden, another thing I am so thrilled about — I love that theatre! A wonderful space, and it’s underused. I hope people will be curious to rediscover that theatre on July 22.

JS: It’s great to have opera back, but I have to confess that I’m not a big fan of The Rape of Lucretia….

DM: You are not alone, but it’s an incredibly powerful piece. It has so many layers to it – a horribly tragic story but the whole aspect of the Christian interpretation at the end is interesting. Britten’s putting this Christian, moralising tone to it on top of the ancient story is in itself worth exploring. None of this tragedy has lost any of its immediacy. The music is fantastic – some of Britten’s best writing for voice is in this opera.

JS: What other events do you feel are special highlights at TSMF this summer?

DM: Ben Heppner is our new Festival spokesperson. We’ve decided to do that because this is such a big year for voice, so having one of Canada’s legendary opera stars acting as spokesperson is special. The opening gala concert has tenor Nicholas Phan sing Britten’s Serenade for Tenor Horn and Strings. You’ll remember that he was here several summers ago? Then we have Jamie Barton, a wonderful up-and-coming singer, very natural, and a good, grounded person too. We’ll have a wonderful celebration of Shakespeare, an evening of sonnets and scenes, a program developed by Patrick Hansen at Opera McGill. He’s going to have the music of Gounod, Verdi, and Britten of course, interspersed with readings of sonnets. Sixteen young singers are involved in this production.

JS: You seem to be doing a lot of Britten. What about the other British composers?  Like, Elgar?

DM:  Oh yes!  On Opening Night, we’ll have Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro. On Aug. 4 in the Proms concert, we’ll have Enigma Variations, Pomp and Circumstance, etc. There are only about 12 to 15 mainstage concerts, so the trick is to how to do justice to the Festival theme of London Calling. It ends up with just a smattering of everything. It’s a difficult exercise, leaving out so much.

JS: How’s the Art of the Song this year?

DM: We are rebranding the Art of the Song recitals this year as “re-GENERATION” — trying to get away from the idea that these are just the Academy concerts. They are so much more — these are really professional concerts, like the chamber concerts when the resident artists are playing.

JS: I’ve often wondered why your Art of Song singers don’t team up with your chamber musicians to give recitals — that strikes me as a logical arrangement.

DM: We tried!  It’s tough, given the repertoire and the scheduling. It’s one of those ideals that we were never able to fully integrate. But this year we have a lot of voice. We also have Daniel Taylor and Allyson McHardy in our Proms concert.

JS: And the great German soprano Anne Schwanewilms is coming. Is she going to sing?

DM: Yes, she’s coming, but no she won’t be singing – she’s coming as a mentor in the Art of Song. It’s always difficult to sing and teach at the same time, but we’re working on it. Next year the mentor will sing first and then teach…

JS: I want to ask you – what do you feel the proudest about the TSMF and what’s your vision for the future?

DM: I’d say having brought all the elements together, creating a world-class Academy, having totally transformed it into one of North America’s premiere young artist training institutes, recognised by our peers. When I came, the concerts were held at the MacMillan Theatre. Now they’re at Koerner Hall. We’ve also transformed the nature of the Festival, by inviting the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. This summer we’re working with the Canadian Opera Company this summer… we’ve become really part of the milieu now. Everybody knows about the Festival. That’s what has been accomplished in the last six years. It’s an interesting moment, a good moment…the whole organisation has never been stronger. Financially we’re strong; we’ve had a very good year last year, with a significant boost to our endowment. A very good Board with very good fund-raising results. We’ve had some modest good news, having been put onto multi-year funding by some of the government granting agencies including the Toronto Arts Council. When I came, we were on a project-to-project basis. Now we’re on a multi-year funding basis. This is a good moment to hand it to someone new. I have to say, we’ve had wonderful people applying to the position (of Artistic Director).  For me it’s a demonstration that all kinds of people are interested in TSMF, thinking ‘oh boy, wouldn’t it be fun to be able to do something with that!’

JS: When you say all kinds of people – are you entertaining only local candidates, someone who’s based here, or are you also looking at people who are not residents of the city but are willing to come here for the summer?

DM: The Board has a very strong idea how they want to see this evolve…all the options are open. But I think the real preference would be to have someone in Toronto. That’s been my advice – you must have somebody who goes to every event in the city, everywhere, all the time, representing Toronto Summer Music. That’s how you continue to build the organisation. Having a music director coming in once a month having meetings with a few donors and then leave isn’t enough.

JS: Which brings up my last question — what advice would you have for the new person?

DM: [Long Pause]

JS: I’ve put you on the spot here…

DM: Yes, because I don’t think I’ll be offering advice. But I’ll have a role as a possible mentor, certainly as a confidant. My intention is to be a resource person…

JS: Oh, so you’ll still be connected in some minor way with TSMF?

DM: Officially no, but morally yes.  And available when there are questions. I have to say the Board has been terrific…this whole succession issue has been handled in an ideal way.

JS: You mean, nobody said to you – why are you leaving us? How can you betray us? I’m teasing you…

DM: That might have been one of the stages of the reaction!  But when they see the reason, the work I do…  My ardent supporters on the Board wonder how I managed!  It’s clearly not sustainable. It’s really in the best interest of Toronto Summer Music that I hand it over to someone else. It’s been my passion for the last six years. I want to see it continues to grow and prosper. I’m working with the Board closely so that the transition is totally seamless. Whoever that person is who takes over will have my complete support.


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Joseph So

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