A portrait of Mandle Cheung and the 90-member philharmonic orchestra he created to help rekindle his love of classical music.
Members of the orchestra are practicing in a small arts enclave that was once a church in the city’s east end. The sound of the French horns and the swell of the string section fills the space to the rafters. At the helm is amateur conductor Mandle Cheung, whose style is minimalist, his eyes rarely leaving the score.
It’s a familiar scene in the world of classical music, but the dynamic here is decidedly different. During the breaks, he chats with musicians, who offer their takes on the music. Rehearsals — paid according to union rates — are held most days of the week. “He books a lot of rehearsals to learn the score,” notes orchestra manager Sharon Lee. It’s an unusual scenario in a world where, typically, the conductor rules from the top down, and rehearsals are meant to fine-tune rather than learn the score. “He likes to call it ‘the democratic orchestra’,” she says.
“I’m really not conducting,” Mandle confesses, “I’m learning the music.” That includes new repertoire for the piano for an upcoming concert. “I read the Tchaikovsky score and freaked out,” he laughs. As a new conductor, should he begin with simpler music? “I’m too old for that,” he says. Hence, the Mandle Philharmonic, a retirement dream come true.
Mandle’s love of classical music comes despite a family who was indifferent to the genre. Born and raised in Hong Kong, he moved to Canada with his family in 1968. “When I was 13 years old, I heard Saint-Saëns’ Third Violin Concerto,” he explains, “from a tiny FM radio. I haven’t listened to anything else since.”
In high school, he was involved in a harmonica band, and it furthered his love of music. Although practical concerns won out in his major, once he was away from home for the first time in Winnipeg to attend the University of Manitoba, he added a minor in music to his degree in computer science. He had the good luck to take a course in conducting with noted composer, conductor, and violinist Arthur Polson. Mandle was chosen to conduct the graduation concert that year, leading the orchestra in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. Polson went a step further. “He introduced me to the CBC Radio Orchestra,” Mandle recalls. It led to Mandle’s performing Arthur Benjamin’s Harmonica Concerto with the CBC Winnipeg Orchestra under the baton of Eric Wilde.
It inflamed his love of music, but after his studies were over, the practical necessities of life took precedence. “After graduate school, I had to work and make a living,” he says simply. “I had to borrow money to come to university.” It’s a familiar refrain. Mandle went on to found his own tech company in 1987, and naturally, his schedule had less and less time for anything but work and family. About his 40s, he stopped any involvement in music due to his burgeoning business concerns, but that wasn’t the end of it. “In my 50s, I heard Mahler, and I started listening again.”
By 2016, he decided that he had the time and the means to pick up his old love again. He connected with some of the many classical musicians in Toronto’s Korean community, including orchestra manager Sharon Lee. Sharon is the Concertmaster of Toronto Concert Orchestra’s Casa Loma Series, and violinist with Toy Piano Composers Ensemble and Trio Shastra. If the conductor is a novice, Lee is typical of the calibre of professional players he has hired to flesh out his dream orchestra.
Other full-time professional musicians, who make up the bulk of the orchestra’s players, perform in orchestras such as the COC, the Hamilton Philharmonic, or KW Symphony, among others. Mandle is adamant that he plays union wages, and operates by union rules.
Once the orchestra was assembled, at age 70, he could finally get down to work.
“I still remember the first rehearsal — I was so stressed out, I had someone turn pages for me.” He says he first learned the music with the help of two pianists, and laughingly refers to his unique method of notating his scores.
Mandle says the audience numbered about 200 at the Glenn Gould Studio in November 2018 for the Mandle Philharmonic’s inaugural concert featuring Beethoven Symphony 5 and Mahler Symphony 4. It’s an ambitious program that is fueled by his current focus on Mahler. As a musical obsession, it’s an ambitious one, and he says he plans on performing all of Mahler’s symphonies eventually. He says there’s a reason why he began with Symphony 4. “That one took me two years to learn — the shortest Mahler.”
Mandle says the feedback from their first concert was universally positive, and he’s hoping to build on the experience with their upcoming performance on March 30 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. He’ll be conducting the Mandle Phil — at about 90 musicians in total — in Mahler’s The Titan Symphony.
Along with the orchestra, the upcoming concert will feature pianist Kevin Ahfat performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. The gifted Canadian soloist is just back in Toronto after finishing up studies at Julliard. Named as one of CBC’s 30 hot Canadian classical musicians under 30, Kevin is currently undertaking the one-year Rebanks Family Fellowship and International Performance Residency Program at the Glenn Gould School.
Where does the Mandle Philharmonic figure in Toronto’s classical music scene? It’s a kind of experiment in orchestra dynamics, and it’s just getting started. Mandle emphasizes the high calibre of musicianship audiences will experience. If the concerts are well supported, Mandle plans on expanding the orchestra’s repertoire, with goals of an eventual concert season, and perhaps even touring.
Proceeds from the concerts will go towards grants for emerging musicians. And, as flutist Terry Lim notes, “Where else can you see Mahler performed for $6 or $10?”