Presented by Mandle Philharmonic
How does an orchestral concert take shape?
The rehearsal hall at the Meridian Arts Centre is full, with 50+ musicians, their instruments, and stands spread in an arc across the large space. The conductor, Mandle Cheung, stands on a raised podium in the middle, guiding the orchestra as they fill the hall with the sound of Brahms.
Anyone who is familiar with the usual drill at such occasions would notice that this rehearsal has a different pace — and a dynamic that is unusual in the classical music world. The conductor stops and consults with the musicians about how to proceed. The vibe is low key and relaxed.
“Let’s do it again, please,” he says.
The concert — An Evening of Romantics (Brahms and Beethoven) & Spring Festival Overture — with conductor Mandle Cheung and the Mandle Philharmonic with pianist Sae Yoon Chon, takes place on January 25, but planning for the concert began last summer.
The Mandle Philharmonic is entirely the brainchild of Mandle Cheung, tech entrepreneur and classical music aficionado, and the concert, the orchestra’s third, began to take shape with a focus on repertoire. In their two previous concerts, he explored Mahler, but for the third, he went further back into the Romantic era to Brahms and Beethoven. Spring Festival Overture by modern Chinese composer Li Huanzhi, a piece widely performed in China, was also added to the bill.
Once he’d decided on repertoire, Mandle took about two months to prepare on his own. Along with studying the score, he watches videos and, naturally, listens to different interpretations of the work. “I spend a lot of time trying to learn it,” he says.
Next, he assembles the musicians and sets up a rehearsal schedule with the orchestra. Contact must be made with the soloist, in this case, Sae Yoon Chon, the First Prize winner at the 2018 Dublin International Piano Competition and at the 2019 Orford Music Festival.
Because of the dynamics, practices are more frequent than would be typical of a professional group. Mandle uses the experience and insight of the musicians to add to his own interpretation of the score as the rehearsals progress. “I’m really cheating in a sense,” he laughs. “I enjoy learning; it’s very stimulating.”
The difference in approach comes from the origins of Mandle Phil. At 70, Mandle Cheung had created a successful tech business, but there was one item left on his to-do list: conducting an orchestra. “Back in 2015, I started formulating the idea,” he says.
In order to put the plan into action, and without the usual background in classical music, he began with networking — getting out to community orchestra rehearsals and performances, meeting the players and conductors. “I learned a lot.”
Still, he recognized from the outset that it would be an enormous undertaking. “I have no idea what I am doing,” he admitted to himself, “but I want to do it.” First and foremost, he knew he needed help. “How do I put a team of players together?” he wondered.
The experience with community orchestras led to a decision. Most community orchestras operate with a core of a few professional players, with the majority of the seats filled out by amateur musicians.
“I decided to have all professional players,” Mandle says. Working with experienced orchestral musicians means that he can rely on their expertise. It’s also proven to be the key to creating an orchestra from scratch.
Certainly, there is no lack of talent in Toronto’s pool of classical musicians, and word has spread about the kind of opportunity that the Mandle Phil offers.
Allison Bent, Assistant Personnel Manager for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, heard about the Mandle orchestra through the musician’s grapevine. She’s been with the organization playing percussion since their March 2019 concert. “It was a massive undertaking,” she says. “It’s very much a collaborative effort.”
While there are a number of others who have been in since the beginning, the flow of new people is also a plus. “The interesting part is that it’s not always the same people,” she says. “It keeps you on your toes.”
Mike Cox plays the double bass. “I’ve been playing with Mandle from the very beginning,” he says. He too enjoys the orchestra’s dynamic. “It’s a very unique situation.” He points out that it’s rare to encounter a maestro who entertains critique from the orchestra members.
“It’s a good opportunity to play in a big orchestra, and I have been very fortunate” he notes.
Graham Martin plays the contrabassoon. “I’ve been with him for the whole shebang,” he says. “What I’ve really enjoyed is the calibre of orchestra that the contractor has been able to assemble.”
While the unusual dynamic means more rehearsals than would be typical of a professional orchestra, as Mandle learns alongside the musicians, it’s a plus than a drawback. Repertoire has a lot to do with that too. “It’ s music that is a pleasure to play,” he says. “He chooses great repertoire.” It’s also about the atmosphere. “Because he’s a humble man, there’s none of that stress you see with professional groups sometimes,” he says.
Graham also points out the fact that there are only so many orchestra seats to fill in the city, combined with a steady flow of talented young musicians coming out of Toronto’s colleges and universities. “It’s a great opportunity,” he notes, and one that offers professional experience.
The process of organization and planning has evolved alongside the organization itself. In effect, there was over two years of prep for their first concert, a performance of Mahler’s 4th Symphony that took place in November 2018. “It’s the shortest one,” Mandle notes. That first performance took place at the Glen Gould Studio for an audience of about 250 by his reckoning.
Preparations for the second concert, which occurred in March 2019, again featuring Mahler, were much shorter. “That was crammed into two months,” he says. The audience swelled to about 800, he reports.
Entering its third year of operations, Mandle is trying to delegate more of the backstage work. “There is a lot of test driving,” he says. “We always managed to pitch together.” He credits the talented collaborators and team players he’s managed to assemble with the orchestra’s successes so far.
A full orchestra for performance involves about 90 players, but managing an orchestra entails much more than simply putting the music and musicians together for performance. “Everything is a learning process,” he says. Fitting everyone on stage for the Mahler concert — including six timpani — was a challenge on its own, for example.
Among other things, running an orchestra involves learning how to work with the musicians union. “I’m essentially wearing three hats,” Mandle says. That includes acting as conductor, CEO and financial backer. He’s always looking to hire talented people to join the team. Marketing and putting the word out about the concerts, including social media, is another challenge.
Once the January 25 concert is over, planning and organizing continues. Mandle’s plans for the future are ambitious. “I intend to do five concerts in 2020 — ideally,” he says. “If we do well, we’ll start to plan the rest. I intend for this to be a full professional orchestra.”
See the Mandle Philharmonic live on Saturday, January 25 at 7:30 pm performing at the Meridian Arts Centre, George Weston Recital Hall. For a limited time, use discount code PHIL50 for 50% off adult tickets.