INTERVIEW | Jonathan Crow, The Face Of Toronto Summer Music

By Joseph So on July 8, 2017

Toronto Summer Music Festival Artistic Director Jonathan Crow (Photo: James Ireland)
Toronto Summer Music Festival Artistic Director Jonathan Crow (Photo: James Ireland)

TSMF’s new helmsman shares his thoughts on music and music-making

If you think Toronto is a bit of a classical music desert in the summer months, you are not alone. There was a time when the Toronto Symphony Orchestra played in Ontario Place—I have fond memories of hearing, of all things, a Mahler 7th under Andrew Davis (before his knighthood) there in the mid 1980s. Then there were the Harbourfront concerts in the 2000s. And the promising Black Creek Festival lasted all of one summer. Sadly, for a self-professed “world class city,” Toronto seriously lacks a summer festival measuring up to the likes of Ravinia or Tanglewood.

But all is not lost! We can thank our lucky stars that Toronto Summer Music Festival is going strong. Started in 2006 under the directorship of Agnes Grossmann, the torch was passed to violist Douglas McNabney who led TSMF to even greater heights. Now it is the turn of violinist Jonathan Crow to put his personal stamp on the Festival. Toronto music lovers are familiar with Crow’s marvellous playing as the TSO’s Concertmaster. As an avid TSO attendee, I have fond memories of his playing, in particular his Korngold Violin Concerto, when he deputised for the absent Vilde Frang.

It has become a bit of a tradition. For the last six years, I interviewed Douglas McNabney for his thoughts on how the previous season went and his plans for the upcoming summer. I decided to continue this tradition. Jonathan Crow took time out from preparations for the TSO European tour to speak with me about TSMF and his vision going forward:

JS: First of all, congrats for taking over TSMF!

JC: Thanks, it’s been fun so far!

JS: What made you decide to take this on?

JC: It’s a chance for me to become more involved in the chamber side of things here in T.O. I do a lot of orchestral things here and my quartet comes here. There’s not a lot [musically] going on in Toronto in the summer. The organizations shut down. For me it’s a chance to still be around and contributing to the musical life.

JS: Where do you make your home? 

JC: I am from Prince George, B.C. Toronto is definitely my home. One of the great things about TSMF is it gives me a chance to be home in [the] summer and still be involved in music.

JS: Before this, what did you do with your summers, since the TSO isn’t on?

JC: I’ve never actually been home in the summer the last twenty years! In school, I would go to summer festivals like Ravinia. When I was in MSO [Montreal Symphony Orchestra], I would travel to summer fests, in Colorado and Maine, even coming to TSMF before I moved here. Summer for musicians is one of our busiest times; we go to wonderful places, but are not necessary at home with our family. This is a great chance for me to be at home.

JS: You are married, I understand. Is your wife a violinist? Do you have children?

JC: She is a cellist. Her name is Molly Read. She’s at home with the kids for a while. She is starting to do part time teaching at Havergal College and some freelance work. We have two girls. The older plays the violin, the younger plays the cello, like her mom. They are 10 and 9.

JS: Tell us a little about your involvement with TSMF before this appointment…

JC: When I first moved to Toronto, it was the year Douglas took over.  I’ve been involved in TSMF for six years, getting to know all the people, donors, musicians. It’s nice to continue those relationships and build on them.

JS: Do you have admin experience?

JC: Not so much, but we’ve an amazing team!  In a way, anybody who is a musician has admin experience—we’re all self-employed. In the chamber ensemble, you have to deal with people, with personalities. A quartet is a great training for life—it’s like being in an office! An orchestra is the same, on a larger scale. Pragmatic details. Musical issues. You have to deal with all that and find a way to make it all work.

JS: What are some of the challenges going into the future for TSMF? 

JC: Because there is little going on in Toronto in the summer, I feel TSM has a responsibility to take over a bit from everything. We see ourselves as having to do a bit of everything. When you try to do everything, you want to make sure you do something really well, and not try to be everything to everybody. The challenge is to represent the music scene in Toronto well, so that we don’t become too much of a niche, and also to keep true to the model of what we do, which is to focus on the educational aspects, focus on the fellows we bring in for the Art Song and the Chamber initiatives, and to make sure we have a core, and branch out from there.

JS: What I hear from you is that TSMF is Art of Song and Chamber. Do you see it as staying the same? 

JC: Those core initiatives are what we do, and we have added the Community Academy. We are very focused on youth and education, and community involvement. We filled the niche of education. You look at GGS and U of T, both great institutions and really great at training people. Then you look at people who need to get jobs—there’s always a little window in there, where you finish your university, but no training on “How do I actually prepare for an orchestra? How do I learn a piece in two hours instead of two months? How do I prepare for a chamber music lifestyle where I need to learn a piece in a week of rehearsal rather than six weeks of rehearsal?”

We find we can fill a niche in there, and use that as an opportunity to present great concerts, and give these emerging artists a chance to be heard on the main stage, help start their career a little bit, find their voice on stage. What are we trying to present to our audience is emerging artists who have started their careers but are not huge household names. We are trying to help them, give them a chance to play in Koerner Hall, and give our audiences access to the next superstars.

JS: TSMF seems to have a well-developed mentor program already…

JC: The “sesqui” year makes it easy. The focus is on Canada. It gives me the excuse to bring back Canadian artists I idolized when I was growing up—Martin Beaver, Desmond Hoebig,…  When I was a kid, I thought these guys were superstars.  Martin Beaver was a prizewinner at the QE [Queen Elizabeth] Competition. I remember being at home on a couch, listening to him perform—he was doing a Glazunov concerto—when it was announced that he was going to be the next violinist in the Tokyo Quartet. That was thrilling. The “sesqui” year gives me the excuse to be more Canadian-focused in artists and programming. We haven’t historically done that many commissions—this year we have one by Carmen Braden for TSO chamber soloists, and one by Jordan Pal, for mentors and fellows. He’s a young composer, and we are doing it with mentors and fellows. They get to see what it’s like to approach a new piece, and get to work with the composer for the first time.

JS: I’ve noticed that the Art of Song program and the Chamber program are very separate. Why is there no singer in the same concert with a chamber ensemble? 

JC: This will change this year, in our ReGeneration concert. It’s more of a pragmatic issue. It’s interesting to combine the presenting aspect with the educational aspect. What we need to put on stage has to function as a stand-alone concert, and [be] of interest to the audience, and also something that can be useful for the educational and training process. Up until now, it has been a bit complicated to combine the two. To find the time to mix that had been difficult until now. When I took over, that’s one of the first things we looked at. It’s very interesting for the educational process where a young violinist works with a singer. We come [to the music] in different ways, the instrumental and the vocal worlds. It can be a nice fresh set of eyes to see what people are doing. Whenever I play for vocalists, they have such an amazing way of talking about the way I move, the way I breathe, and the way to cue something. All this is very natural [to us]. As a violinist, we don’t spend our whole educational process talking about breathing, but when you think about it, you have to breathe, every time you make a motion and give a cue.

JS: Have you worked much with singers? 

JC: Not a huge amount. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some great singers. The very first piece I played in the MSO was the Mahler Second [Symphony], with Zubin Mehta conducting and Henriette Schellenberg singing. Just to be that close to hear her talk about phrasing to the conductor was eye-opening. I did another concert in Montreal with Ben Heppner who did some Korngold, and he suggested some things to the orchestra. Just seeing the way he would come from his side talking about the music, it was amazing. He would pick out details that we wouldn’t have noticed: picked out one note that would fit a word that we wouldn’t have thought of. Singers have a whole different aspect to interpretation, as they have words and we don’t. We are always trying to think of an idea—when we have a chord, we listen to the chord. But singers have the chord and the words, and the words give them the idea of how it should sound.

JS: The last few seasons, Douglas had themes for each season. Do you see that continuing? 

JC: To a certain extent, I believe every concert should stand alone. I don’t think there will necessarily be a theme to every concert. I try to put together pieces that fit well together, pieces that inspire each other. The over-arching theme of the festival will continue.

JS: Were you “hands-on” last summer? 

JC: No, I was too busy. I was performing a lot. I was hoping to be a bit more hands-on, but didn’t have time. I plan to continue to perform, and be involved in the Community Academy. When Douglas first started it, he talked to me about it. He hadn’t had the time to do it the last two years. He’s coming back for it.

JS: Have you run chamber festivals before? 

JC: I’ve been a soloist for a number of years, having put together [my own] program. The idea of programming, putting together ones that make sense and have a cohesive whole, within the underlying theme of a festival, is very similar to looking at a year in the life [of a soloist.]

Jonathan Crow (Photo: Sian Richards)
Jonathan Crow (Photo: Sian Richards)

JS: Do you have a favourite piece of music? 

JC: The standard answer is “the one I am playing right now!” I wouldn’t say I have one favourite piece. I have a few go-to pieces. I program the Schubert C Major Cello Quintet this year—there’s something special about it.

JS: Do you have a favourite musical period?

JC: I wouldn’t say I have a favourite period. I’ve always loved to see the connections between things. I love Brahms but [am] not necessarily drawn to a recital program of all Brahms sonatas. I am drawn to other pieces, like Beethoven and Mozart sonatas, that show connections to Brahms, and maybe a modern piece inspired by Brahms.

JS: What about early 20th-century pieces? Didn’t I hear you play Korngold, replacing Vilda Frang?  

JC: It’s interesting to look at Korngold and Schönberg—they are worlds apart, even though they are within the same time frame. You have the broadest styles in that time period. There’s music for everybody. There’s that strange sort of idea in the classical music world that if you don’t like a certain piece or period you are not a good person. Music isn’t supposed to be like that. If you like it, it’s great!

JS: How does music speak to you?

JC: When I am playing it or listening to it? They are quite different…

JS: Both.

JC: When you are playing it, there is this interesting mix between being incredibly involved in what you are doing, but still being able to stand back and look at everything from an outside perspective. When you are playing, you have to make sure that you are hearing what you are actually doing. You can love a piece too much, so much that you think you are doing everything you hear in your head, without achieving it.

JS: What if it is a piece you don’t like? A piece that doesn’t speak to you? How do you deal with that in performance? 

JC: Haha, we’ve all been there! If I am playing a piece I don’t get, I don’t understand, or I don’t like, I try to step back and think—it’s not my job to judge this piece right now. History will judge it a hundred years later. We look at Beethoven’s Great Fugue and think it’s a masterwork, right? When it was written, people were confused and didn’t know what it was. When it is a piece I don’t understand, I step back and say—I will do my best job to sell this, do everything I can to make it a great performance. Then my role is done. It’s up to the audience, and to history. All I can do is present it to the best of my ability.

JS: Some musicians see themselves as the vehicle of the composer, they are the messenger…

JC: Yes, but at the same time there’s an interpretive aspect, right? You are not just passing on the message, but the message with your own interpretation of its meaning.

JS: How do you teach that to a student? You have to be faithful to the original, yet…

JC: That’s a tough one. Especially in these days of Urtext. We really have good authenticity now on what the composer wanted. Fifty years ago, we bought a part and it had already been edited by someone else and we wouldn’t know it. These days you buy an Urtext part and there would be 10 pages of comments about how a note in this edition has been changed in another edition… You have all this at your disposal.

JS: Do you teach interpretation?

JC: Teaching interpretation—some teachers would say you really can’t. Either you have it, or you don’t. I think what you can teach is the idea of how to look for something in the music. You can’t teach what [a student is] going to find. If I look for something in the music and a student looks for something in the music, we might find different things!

JS: Do you find students try to imitate your sound? 

JC: Yeah, I think in a way students who are successful are the ones opened to all kinds of sounds, asking “how can I achieve that?” Maybe they’re not trying to copy it, but the sounds inspire them to look for something in their own playing. So when you hear something that inspires you, you want to recreate that, and perhaps you can go further, to allow what you want to say in the music. Listening and imitation is a great start, as long as it is not the only goal. The goal should be not to just imitate, but to hear it and inspired by it and to go further to find your own sound. Your ears have to be open, and your imagination has to be open.

JS: How much time do you devote to teaching?

JC: I’d say a fair amount. For seven years I was a full-time teacher at McGill University. I left Montreal Symphony in 2004 and taught at the Schulich School of Music from 2004 to 2011. It was my full time job and I really enjoyed it. I feel it really keeps me honest, because working with students to look for interpretation, how to do something, it forces me to come back to myself, knowing that I need to do this myself too.

JS: What made you decide to leave performance? It must have been an incredibly difficult decision…

JC: I think the idea of having a teaching base was a great fit for me at the time. I still had enough time to travel and tour and perform. I got to be more involved in teaching, which helped me to maybe revisit my own ideas in music, my technique, and my interpretation.

JS: I guess it’s a bit of a jaundiced view of a cynic among some of us audience members (I hope I am not offending all the teachers out there… Peace, teachers!) to think that “Ah, that person is a full-time teacher because he or she may not play so great…” But you play so fantastic, that’s why my jaw dropped when you said you taught all those years.

JC: Haha, you know, I think some of the greatest teachers you see on the stage are the people who continue to play, and they find this mix between being able to pass on their knowledge and being able to still do it. It’s a wonderful thing. If you look at Ida Kavafian, you look at the fellows we have, Martin Beaver, Des Hoebig, who is a full-time cello professor. Imagine being a student of his and taking a lesson! Imagine getting to work with him and then see him on stage, the inspiration! Oh my gosh, look at what he’s doing! In a way it helps you to connect to the students.

JS: It’s probably not fair to ask you this, as they are all your babies! But I’m going to ask you anyway—what concerts in this summer’s TSMF stand out for you?

JC: They are all my babies, I’m really excited about all of them! I have a former student whose name is Kerson Leong performing in Last Night of the Festival, Eh! on August 4. I am so proud of him. I think he’s representative of what the Festival has to offer. He’s going to be Canada’s next great violinist. People at TSM will have a chance to hear him here for the first time. In ten years we’re not going to get him! In the same concert, we’re going to have Emily D’Angelo who is amazing. This is what I love about the TSM. We have the Fellows, and at the same time we can present these up-and-coming artists on their way to huge careers. It’s a nice idea to think—ha, we saw them then!

JS: Thanks so much Jonathan, and toi toi toi for the new TSMF season!   


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Joseph So

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