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Jeff Melanson and Eleanor McCain in New York May 1, 2014. (Eric Thayer/Eric Thayer)
Jeff Melanson and Eleanor McCain in New York May 1, 2014. (Eric Thayer/Eric Thayer)

Meet Jeff Melanson, Canada's cultural turnaround man Add to ...

As for the leader they’re losing, says Carolyn Warren, whom Melanson brought in from the CBC to be vice-president, arts, last year, “Now we get our man in Toronto. I know he will be an advocate [for the Banff Centre] and a really interesting collaborator. He’s bridging the country – Banff in Toronto, and Toronto in Banff.”

A proposal in the night

For Melanson, the engagement to McCain is another driving force behind his return to Toronto.

He knew McCain’s parents first – Wallace and Margaret McCain co-chaired the multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign for the new National Ballet School, where Melanson was executive director and co-CEO before going to Banff. Wallace McCain, who died in 2011, was “one of the great business mentors of my career,” says Melanson.

A few years ago, the frozen-foods scion asked if Melanson might give his daughter some advice about the music industry, and the two struck up a friendship. They lost touch over the years, but last December they met for coffee in Toronto, and then began a long-distance relationship.

After consulting McCain’s mother, Melanson proposed on opening night of Eleanor’s Maritime Swing Tour with Matt Dusk, in her hometown of Florenceville, N.B. They were back at the McCain family home, where they were staying, and Melanson pulled McCain into her father’s old study.

“He got down on one knee,” recalls McCain, “and said, ‘I really wanted to propose to you here so that your dad could be part of this too, because he meant so much to both of us.’ ”

McCain, 44, who has been divorced from her second husband for almost 11 years, has a 12-year-old daughter. “The kids are all supportive and they like each other and we feel very blessed in that regard,” says McCain. “They’re behind it too, and I think they can see we’re a little kooky for each other.”

Canada’s newest arts power couple is talking about a fall wedding. By then, home for Melanson will be Toronto, the Banff Centre should be under the leadership of an interim president, and Melanson will be about to begin work at the TSO, where he starts Nov. 1.

The TSO makes its move

As Melanson tells it, he had already made his decision to leave the Banff Centre when he was approached by the TSO, which has been looking for a replacement for Andrew Shaw since his departure last year. The orchestra was in discussions over the winter with a lead candidate in the U.S. when that person informed the board that he was taking a job at a teaching institution.

Shortly after that, Board Chair Chris Hodgson heard through the grapevine that Melanson was planning to leave Banff for Toronto. The TSO began a serious pursuit, mindful of other arts-leadership jobs open or opening up in Ontario. “He’s a change agent and we needed somebody who was going to look at things a bit differently,” says Hodgson.

The TSO’s budget deficit was $1.27-million in 2012-13, up from $837,000 the previous fiscal year – and the accumulated deficit is $12.2-million. Melanson, with his music background and an MBA, and his political and philanthropic connections, was seen as an ideal candidate to turn things around.

Still, there was some concern, given his early departure from Banff, over whether he would stay put at the TSO, and Melanson was asked about this during the interview process. The TSO concluded that the determining factor in his leaving Banff was his personal situation.

TSO Music Director Peter Oundjian was also consulted, and saw in Melanson a guy “full of energy and vision and charisma” who could be the kind of public figure the orchestra needs as an advocate. He also saw a like mind when it comes to the value of touring – while Shaw, Oundjian says, had a different perspective. “This kind of vision is what the TSO needs,” says Oundjian, who takes the TSO to Europe this summer.

Oundjian had a lengthy meeting with Melanson ahead of a TSO performance of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben on April 12, two days after Melanson announced that he was leaving the Banff Centre. The TSO announced Melanson’s appointment on April 24. (That same day, the University of Toronto revealed that Melanson had been appointed Senior Resident at Massey College, and a Senior Fellow at the U of T’s Munk School of Global Affairs.)

“He’s a disruptive innovator and so I think it would be safe to say that status quo is not going to be the way the Toronto Symphony moves forward,” says Hodgson.

Adds Oundjian, “The board is very driven now. This is hopefully a launching pad for the TSO.”

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