Just after 8 p.m. on Thursday evening, Peter Oundjian will give the downbeat to members of the Toronto Symphony to begin playing Verdi’s Overture to La Forza del Destino, and the orchestra’s 90th season will spring into being.
And for about the 80th of those 90 years, people will be wondering how la forza del destino – the force of destiny – is going to affect the institution of the symphony itself.
Executing a successful business plan for a symphony orchestra in 2012 is like Wikipedia – it’s impossible in theory; it only works in practice. For many years, the traditional economic and demographic constraints on the symphony orchestra were nothing short of suicidal. Here was a big institution, with upwards of 100 full-time, salaried employees, providing entertainment that was, on a good day, only 150 years old, to an aging audience of essentially European-based patrons in a city that was bursting with young people and diverse cultures. An institution presenting close to 100 concerts a year in a 2,600-seat venue that needed to be full a good portion of the time for the bottom line to balance. With almost no margin for error. And did I mention that we’re experiencing the worst economic downturn since the Depression?
That the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is managing to survive under these impossible conditions, and even, dare one say it, thrive, is a tribute to the management savvy of Oundjian and the people who make the symphony run. If you haven’t been to the symphony lately, you’ll be amazed at who you see in the audience. It’s full of young people, people of lots of different cultural backgrounds, people dressed in all different styles, relaxed, having a good time. And they’re there because from the moment he took over the TSO in 2004, Oundjian has created an extremely welcoming attitude. He often speaks from the stage before a concert, informally and well, and he and his management team have expanded the popular pre-concert talks given by former CBC host Rick Philips and the creative on-stage presentations by current CBC host Tom Allen. And the marketing and ticketing people have figured out how to attract younger people to the symphony – figured out what they can pay and how they like to make their entertainment decisions (on the spur of the moment, as it turns out, so don’t lock them into subscriptions). I can’t speak to the TSO’s overall economic health, and no orchestra in North America can ever feel like it’s secure financially, but there’s a spirit in Roy Thomson Hall these days that’s new and infectious.
If there’s a downside to this optimism, it’s that the orchestra’s programming, perhaps by necessity, has become very conservative and cautious. Part of this is economics – the Toronto Symphony isn’t the Toronto Blue Jays, who can survive, it seems forever, playing to constantly half-empty houses. And part has to do with the fact that for the new audiences coming to the concerts, the Beethoven Fifths and Mozart Jupiter Symphonies they’re hearing are for the first time, not the 1,000th. But still, the classical Top 40 are making a great number of appearances in TSO programs this year. For more seasoned concertgoers, it’s a bit déjà vu.
However, there are highlights this season. It’s good to see Canadian superstar James Ehnes kicking off the season Thursday night, even if he is playing the venerable Brahms Violin Concerto. But John Adams’s Harmonielehre is on Thursday’s program as well, a piece written by someone who is, not to put too fine a point on it, alive. And later this fall, we’ll hear a rare semi-staged performance of Manuel de Falla’s opera, La vida breve, conducted by Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, as well as a guest appearance by former music director Andrew Davis leading the orchestra in Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote. Two other guest conductors, both long-time Toronto favourites, will also be making return appearances this season. Thomas Dausgaard will be leading the orchestra in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony in January and Jiri Belohlavek conducts Beethoven’s Ninth in February. And there are a few classical superstars making appearances with the symphony (although it seems fewer than in previous years). We’ll hear from violinists Anne-Sophie Mutter and Maxim Vengerov, Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman, the duo of violinist Joshua Bell and bassist Edgar Meyer, and pianists Yuja Wang, Ingrid Fliter (a personal favourite) and 24-year-old newcomer Lise de la Salle.
It’s not a terrible season. It is a very careful season. But one has to be cautious about being too critical of the manner in which major big-ticket symphony orchestras conduct themselves these days. The music business is in flux everywhere – old realities are being tossed in the wastebasket on a routine basis. Now may not be the time for ambitious experimentation. But some time will be. And one hopes the TSO, with its increasing confidence and strength, will take advantage of that time when it arrives.