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INTERVIEW | Jonathan Crow Has Something Special With Toronto Summer Music

By Joseph So on July 3, 2019

Jonathan Crow, Toronto Summer Music
Now in his third year as Artistic Director, Jonathan Crow shares his vision for Toronto Summer Music as a culturally diverse mecca aimed at classical music-loving Torontonians.

Does anyone remember that famous Nat King Cole hit from long ago, “Those Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer”?  Well, it’s finally here in TO, judging by the sweltering days and balmy nights.  For classical music-loving Torontonians, July means not so much “days of soda, pretzels and beer” as the lyrics go, but more a chance to “sing a song of cheer,“ amply supplied by the Toronto Summer Music, 2019 edition.

Now in its 14th year, TSM (formerly TSMF, the “F” for “Festival”) is by far the biggest summer classical music event in the GTA. For three weeks straddling July and August, TSM offers an attractive lineup of music from the Baroque to the 21st Century, focusing on chamber music and the art of the song.

The theme this year is Beyond Borders, celebrating the cross-cultural influences that have helped shape classical music the last three hundred years.  What we know as “western classical music” did not exist in isolation, but had drawn inspiration from beyond its borders, from Asia, Africa, and the Americas.  TSM 2019 gives us a tantalizing taste of such influences, from Jazz to Klezmer to World Music.

I caught up with TSM Artistic Director Jonathan Crow for a chat about this year’s program. Now in his third season at the helm, I wanted to get his thoughts on his dual role as a performer and an administrator.  I interviewed him back in his first year. His predecessor, Douglas McNabney, had nurtured TSM into one of the most important summer festivals in Canada. Those were big shoes to fill.

TSM has continued to grow and flourish under Crow’s leadership: in public visibility, in attracting big-name artists, and in innovative programming. There has been a steady increase in attendance in recent years. Selling summer music is never easy, as Torontonians love their escape to cottage country or firing up the backyard barbecue. But TSM has managed to get bums in the seats, by offering programs that music lovers want.

When Jonathan and I met for this article in June, he was still in the thick of rehearsals at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, where he has the double duty of concertmaster and soloist in the last week of concerts. Since our chat, he has wowed TSO audiences by his virtuoso playing of the Sibelius violin concerto. It took some juggling on a busy day, but we managed to meet for a chat.

Now that you are in your third year as Artistic Director, how has the experience been?

It’s been a huge learning curve for me.  I had already worked a lot with TSM as a mentor, and I knew the inner workings from that side of things. Since I became AD, I’ve learned so much about the admin, behind-the-scenes stuff, about what’s involved in creating a theme, making sure that all the concerts fit in with that theme. It’s a balancing act, between my ideas and that of the artists we hire. They are great artists, and they have their own ideas about what to do. The job is to find a way to put that all together and make sure everyone is artistically satisfied.

Would you say the experience been a positive one?

Yes, I would say so. I have become much more flexible in my thinking. It’s a wonderful thing. Having so many great artists with great ideas from the outside. It has made me more open-minded. I am inspired by the other people and their programs. What they come up with are often better than what I come up with.

What are some of the things that you’ve been most proud of these last two seasons?

I would say I’m most proud of the diversity we have, something that’s necessary in Toronto. We’ve got lots of different kinds of music, a mix of standard rep and bringing in of new pieces. We have four new commissions, and lots of Canadian music, something like 30 Canadian pieces. We are the presenting organization of classical music in the summer in Toronto, so it’s a bit of a responsibility to serve the community.

Anything that has surprised you these last two seasons?

[Pause] Nothing really surprised me — things were what I had expected, but perhaps not to that extent. The need for quick thinking, last-minute cancellations, that sort of thing. The sheer number of things that need to be taken care of is always a bit of a surprise. I am an organized person in my life; I like to be efficient. I have this grand idea that everything has to be set, so there’re no last-minute surprises.

It sounds like you are a bit of a Type A personality.

Absolutely! I guess I realized that you can be as prepared as you want, but there are always last-minute surprises, and you’ll just have to roll with that. You can’t control everything. In a perfect world my job would be done before the Festival starts, but…

What do you find the most challenging?

When I’m hiring artists, obviously I want to hire great artists, people with great vision of what they want to present. The most challenging thing is to bring everyone on the same page vision-wise, making sure everybody is satisfied with what they are doing, and that it fits with the needs of the festival, of what our audience wants. You want to hire people with strong feelings about what they want to do, because if they don’t, it won’t be good. Finding ways to mix and match, so people feel really happy about the concerts they are playing is a challenge.

Do you have any new initiatives this season?

One of the things we’ve been trying to do is to grow the fellowship program in the long term, to have less of a distinction between the professional concerts and the ReGen concerts [performed by fellows attending the TSM Academy]. The long term goal is to make TSM more like Marlboro [Marlboro Music in rural Vermont] where you just have artists, some more experienced than others. There are just great concerts with great artists. It’s to have mentors and fellows perform together more.  The level of our young artists has gone up so much the last five years that when they perform on the professional stages, they can absolutely hold their own with the great artists we bring in.

Two years ago, I asked you about art song and chamber peoples collaborating. You said you had plans to have them perform together…

Yes, we’ve done that. We’ve had smaller chamber music pieces, like Il Tramonto and Chanson perpetuelle, and everybody learned a lot. The string players learned a lot from the vocal coaches. This year for the first time we’ll have a full evening concert dedicated to both – Voices Across the Atlantic, led by countertenor/conductor Daniel Taylor.  It’s a mainstage concert that has both art songs for singers pianists and Chamber Music fellows. On the program are pieces by Barber, Britten, and the Monteverdi Madrigals.

I also noticed that there’s a special one-hour concert, billed as for “People in the Autistic Spectrum.”  Can you elaborate on this?

Three years ago, we started with a “kids concert,” something we had not done before. It’s for any age kids, but we aim for ages 5 to 13. For the first time this summer, we are doing a similar concert for the kids in the autism spectrum, the Xenia concert. It’s an accessible concert that has fewer rules and requirements of the audience. It is a “safe space” for the children and their families. The concert is programmed with that in mind. Kids can get up and run around… the lighting is a little different, with not as many bright spotlights. It’s a place you can take your child, and you don’t feel that you’re interrupting someone else’s enjoyment of the concert.

I find your theme this year, Beyond Borders, fascinating. Here we have, in the current political climate, the tendency to build walls, put up borders and barriers. Your theme underscores the importance of crosscurrents and the universality of music. What are your thoughts on this?

When I first came up with the title, I had no idea it would become political in any way. But today, it’s hard for anything not to be a reaction to the politics of the time. When I was doing the research, it was amazing to see how many connections there are in music. If you go way back to the time of Mozart and the influence of Turkish music, to Mahler and Chinese poetry – it’s surprising how much cross-pollination there was even then, between different cultures and different styles of music. It’s important to remember that so much of great music has come from being exposed to other people, being inspired, rather than putting up walls and not pay attention to what’s going on around us.

Today a lot of performers in western classical music are quite ethnically diverse.

More than a lot! I adjudicated the Montreal Competition fifteen years ago. Of the one hundred twenty applicants, seventy were from South Korea alone!  One of the problems we run into in a festival like ours is when you talk about the kind of instruments we have (piano, violin, viola, and cello), we have to make sure that you are not limited to western European music written for those instruments, but to try to find a way to bring in others as well.

Have you started rehearsals yet?  Or are you still in the thick of rehearing for the TSO?

Still the TSO. TSM doesn’t start until the first week in July, that’s when everyone gets into town.

Your group is the New Orford, celebrating its 10th anniversary. Since you work together all the time, do you still need many rehearsals?

Oh God, we need rehearsals! It’s so hard, the music we play.  The string quartet has some of the most complicated and amazing music ever written. When you think about Beethoven quartets, it’s perfect! But even for great quartets, it takes playing the pieces for many years, and you’re never finished.  This year we’re playing a piece by Christos Hatzis, a big piece of 41 minutes – it’s huge and beautiful.

Is it tonal?

A lot of it is inspired by Greek and Arabic music. It’s tonal in that it has beautiful harmonies, but a little unusual in its “bending of tonality” and not necessarily western harmony. There are beautiful melodies, but I wouldn’t say it is melody-driven, but sound-driven.

That’s intriguing. Now I’ll ask you a question that’s perhaps a little unfair: what are your favourites in this year’s festival? I know – it’s like asking a parent who’s his/her favourite child…

I love the Rolston Quartet, and I love Ligeti.  His String Quartet No. 1 is a personal favourite. I think it’s incredible. It’s not very well known, a bit overshadowed by the Bartok Quartet.

Is it melodic?

I wouldn’t say it’s melodic, but it’s absolutely accessible, the visceral power of it. The audience will “get it.” And they’re playing it in the Lula Lounge: you can drink a beer while listening to the concert!  I’m really excited to be working with (conductor) Gemma New, for the Mahler Song of the Earth and the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 5. She’s one of the world’s up-and-coming conductors…she’s amazing.

I see the New Orford is playing on opening night Strauss’s Four Last Songs. It’s my desert island piece. I’m intrigued by the new arrangement by John Greer for the string quartet…

For quartet and piano.

Ah okay!  The third song, Beim Schlafengehen – is the violin solo still there in this new arrangement?

Yes, it is! I wouldn’t do it without the violin solo. It’s the best thing!

Give us your thoughts on that solo

When we learn to play the violin, we’re always told to make it sound like the voice. You’re trying to create a line that sounds like the voice, and then the (actual) voice takes over, and it all comes together, in a perfect range. It’s like the evolution of the violin taken to the ultimate extreme. If you could sing on the violin, this is what would be written for you.

I can totally see that — the violin with the singing tone.  Now, can you say something about the future directions of TSM?

That’s a good question! I mentioned before that we’re trying to incorporate the fellows into the mainstage concerts.  This is a long-term goal —  to have no difference between the mainstage professional concerts and the fellows’ concerts, just a bunch of great artists making music.

How has attendance been at TSM?

It’s been great. The last two years have been the two best years we’ve had, but we want to do better. We do a good job presenting different genres —vocal music, chamber music, classical, jazz, world music. But in the end, it’s all great music.

On that note, thank you Jonathan, and toi toi toi for a successful TSM 2019!


Toronto Summer Music runs July 11–August 3. Tickets and details can be found at www.torontosummermusic.com.


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Joseph So
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