There is arguably no other orchestra in Canada that has undergone so much change as the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) has over the past couple of years.
It was just two years since former CEO Jeff Melanson resigned following the breakup of his marriage to frozen-food heiress Eleanor McCain. It then saw the entry of Interim CEO Sonia Baxendale step off the TSO Board of Directors in March 2016 to lead the organization through the turmoil that followed. Toronto native Gary Hanson was subsequently installed by an understandably shaken board to guide the TSO through to a sense of normalcy. Hanson’s successor was found in the sure hand of Philadelphia Orchestra import Matthew Loden, as President and CEO, who started this past summer.
If that weren’t enough, the orchestra also had to deal with the end of the illustrious 14-year tenure of music director Peter Oundjian, and the hiring of Gustavo Gimeno — a young Spanish conductor most of us on this side of the Atlantic have never heard of. As a stop-gap, TSO Conductor Laureate Sir Andrew Davis was named interim Artistic Director for a two-year stint to keep the ship afloat before Gimeno takes the helm in September 2020.
Amidst so much change, one wonders how it might affect the TSO’s planning for a 2019/20 season. Is this to be a patchwork of here, there, and everywhere?
The answer, thanks to Sir Andrew Davis and Matthew Loden, is to turn a weakness into a strength by highlighting the convergence in a grand theme of past, present and future.
“The music directors are particularly interesting,” said Sir Andrew Davis. “We’ve got Gustavo as the future, you’ve got me, who is a little bit of the present and the past. Peter of course… and we have Jukka-Pekka [Saraste], and Günther Herbig.” All but Gimeno are former conductors of the TSO, and while mentioned, Herbig will be featured this season (March 27 and 28, 2019).
The musical pillars are found in the repertoire, which over the 2019–20 season, includes a birthday year for Beethoven and over a dozen of his works performed.
“I’ve done a lot of Beethoven over the years,” says Davis, but he confesses he is particularly looking forward to the King Stephen Overture, (Op. 117 ), “which nobody ever plays.”
They also have violinist virtuoso James Ehnes performing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (June 10, 11, 13 and 14) and pianist-dynamo Jan Lisiecki playing the Emperor Concerto in April.
Beethoven’s Pastoral is coming alongside the Montreal Symphony Orchestra with Kent Nagano, for their annual Toronto appearance.
Davis will harken back to “where it all started” as organ scholar at Kings College Cambridge from 1963-67, with a performance of Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3, featuring Davis doing double duty conducting and playing the organ.
“We wanted to create the essence of having many different points of access throughout the season,” Loden says. “Particularly for new people who are interested in the storytelling aspect of symphonic music, from The Four Seasons [Vivaldi] with Jonathan Crow leading it and performing it, (Nov. 16, 17, 20 and 21), to the story that you can get walking through the Pictures of an Exhibition [Mussorgsky]…”
This double duty is also seen in the season opener on September 19 and 21, with John Storgårds leading soprano Barbara Hannigan in an excerpt from Brett Dean’s opera Hamlet. The two then switch roles with Hannigan leading Storgårds in a performance of Dutilleux Nocturne (a composer, who has a long history with the TSO).
Loden described the process of creating his first season with the TSO as a little like crafting a story.
“You begin by just putting stuff down; what is it that I love and that I really want to do… You can then begin to piece the season together based what you haven’t done recently. What are the new works that are interesting, new artists you want to bring up… You then get this beautiful artistic pallet that’s really lovely.”
Davis describes the process as “a kind of jigsaw puzzle that’s kind of fun, and as you get to the last stages of it, you go backward and forward to fill in the moments that are missing.”
One of those missing ingredients was Mozart’s Requiem which next season will include a collaboration with Barbara Hannigan’s Equilibrium Young Artists program. The program was founded by Hannigan in order to provide opportunities for young musicians to move beyond the post-training grey area that many find themselves in after they graduate.
“It’s the first time it has happened in North America,” says Loden. The auditions begin next Sunday, where the TSO will vet a series of singers vying for an opportunity to attend an intensive workshop with Hannigan in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, before returning to Toronto to sing the iconic Mozart’s Requiem at Roy Thomson Hall in January 2020.
The biggest surprise of the season is arguably the rarely performed Thaïs. “It’s my favourite Massenet opera,” Davis says, and also the concert he is most looking forward to of the season. The performance will also include Canadian soprano Erin Wall in the title role at the TSO.
When asked about the decision to cancel the TSO’s New Creations Festival last year, both Davis and Loden were quick to express their commitment to contemporary music in Toronto. Loden called it, “an institutional investment in the art of now.”
Davis added that it was a question of whether “a festival is the best way to present contemporary music, or if it’s better to seed it through a season so that you can bring it to a wider audience…” He mentioned that if “you do a festival for people who you know want to come to these, it doesn’t always reach the main subscriptions.”
Loden hinted that incoming new music director Gimeno just might have something special in mind for new music when he takes the baton full-time in 2020, but could not confirm anything just yet.
As for Gimeno, Toronto will have to wait until September 2020 for his official debut as music director. Until then, patrons can catch Gimeno perform in concerts featuring rising pianist Beatrice Rana in early October, as well as a program of Brahms with piano superstar Yuja Wang in April. He will also be here on June 28 for Stravinsky’s Suite from The Firebird.
With the TSO’s 2019-20 season announcement in play, one gets the impression they are very much looking onwards and upwards. While they may be a little wary after a tumultuous few years, they are also all the wiser for it.
For a complete list of 2019/20 programming, visit www.tso.ca.