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Lawrence Cherney, artistic director of Soundstreams. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Lawrence Cherney, artistic director of Soundstreams. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Soundstreams grows Canada's musical reputation worldwide Add to ...

Lawrence Cherney is fond of quoting an old George Burns line: “If I had known I was going to Iive to 90, I would have taken better care of myself.”

These days, Mr. Cheney cites the bon mot withlight-hearted self-deprecation.Soundstreams,his Toronto-based music organization, is only a year away from celebrating a landmark anniversary of its own – its 30th.

But, like the old vaudevillian, Soundstreams has clearly been taking pretty good care of itself all along.

Indeed, while most arts groups are struggling to maintain budgetary status quo in the face of government cutbacks, Mr. Cherney has quietly built Soundstreams into a programming powerhouse – the biggest global producer of new Canadian music, bringing highbrow concerts to international audiences – as well as a model for creative sustainability in tough times.

In addition to an eclectic, annual concert series at Koerner Hall (featuring everything from tango to brass, choral music to opera, and percussion to medieval folk songs), Mr. Cherney, the organization’s artistic director, has established programs for educational outreach, composer residencies, a new digital platform for archived work, and an ambitious agenda of international touring featuring new music by Canadian composers and performers.

Next year, for example, he will lead 11 Canadian musicians and composer R. Murray Schafer (celebrating his 80th birthday) to China for two concerts – part of the largest exploration of Canadian music ever mounted in Asia.

The year after, Soundstreams will mount a new Cree-language opera, The Journey, by Tomson Highway in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland. In tandem, it will produce a work based on Suomi legends with two Canadians soloists, a Canadian director, a Swedish choir, a Danish instrumental ensemble, and three Suomi actors and dancers.

“We’re trying to create distribution models that weren’t there before,” Mr. Cherney says. And, in the current climate of arts-funding austerity, the challenge of forging pragmatic partnerships is becoming more critical. “Canadian music is largely unknown outside of this country. What’s the solution to that? It’s reciprocity.”

In 2009, Soundstreams collaborated with Luminato to produce a world premiere of Mr. Schafer’s The Children’s Crusade. “To this day,” says Luminato’s chief executive officer, Janice Price, “that production remains one of our real success stories – one of the most rewarding and successful, critically acclaimed. It was true partnership.”

Everything Soundstreams does, Mr. Cherney adds – touring, the digital platform, outreach – “is really just a natural and logical extension of the Toronto concert schedule. There’s already a big investment to get it onto the stage, so we’re just taking that extra step. Why not maximize the possibilities?”

It’s precisely that entrepreneurial spirit that Kerby Lovallo, director of New World Classics, a Connecticut-based arts-management agency, sees in Mr. Cherney. “Lawrence handcrafts each concert from scratch, building an audience by combining sub-audiences with a connection to the event. It requires a wide-ranging mind, a head for details, and a lot of guts.”

The organization has also learned other modes of resourcefulness. Nurturing a close relationship with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, explains Soundstreams executive director Jennifer Green, means that if the TSO brings in Polish conductor Krzysztof Penderecki, “we pay an embarrassingly small amount of money to have him conduct our concert, because the bulk of his fee is already covered.”

Soundstreams operates on an annual budget of about $1.4-million, with a substantial portion coming from the three levels of government (including $64,000 from the city of Toronto). The costs of the new digital platform – 100 of the best recordings will be made freely available, culled from three decades of performance – is being underwritten by the federal Department of Canadian Heritage, Ontario’s Trillium Foundation and private donors.

The recent growth of the company – and the increasing need for foreign travel – has forced Mr. Cherney, 65, to cut back on his career as a professional oboist. The son of a furniture retailer from Peterborough, Ont., he took up the instrument in high school. At a rehearsal for his first professional engagement, in 1967, he looked up from the orchestra pit in Massey Hall to discover that the conductor of the work, Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, was Stravinsky himself.

In 1972, he became a founding member of the York Winds, a woodwind quintet. He parted company with the group a decade later, he says, “and got the children in the divorce settlement,” including a non-profit, alternative programming vehicle known as Chamber Concerts Canada. The name morphed into Soundstreams a decade later, at the suggestion of former CBC executive Ian Alexander.

Mr. Cherney put Soundstreams firmly on the musical map in 1997, when he organized Northern Encounters, a festival focussed on music from the circumpolar nations. Ten times larger than anything he had mounted before, the venture “was way too much, way too fast. But it whetted my appetite. Suddenly, we were an international player.”

Then, three years ago, he conducted a market research exercise. The results grabbed his attention: less than one per cent of his audience was attending more than two concerts a year.

“Our core was strong,” says Ms. Green, “but we weren’t getting people to go beyond their comfort zone.”

Taking advantage of the Royal Conservatory of Music’s 1,100-seat Koerner Hall, Mr. Cherney decided to move to a subscription model. From a baseline of zero, he sold 288 subscriptions in his six-concert first season. Average attendance per concert climbed by 63 per cent. This year, subscription sales climbed by 10 per cent.

“Soundstreams has perhaps contributed more to the image of Toronto as an arts-savvy place than many of the more visible institutions,” says Lieven Bertels, director-designate of Australia’s Sydney Festival. “Lawrence has endurance, a nose for quality and the capacity to inspire people.”

Tim Albery, who directed The Children’s Crusade at Luminato, says what impresses him about Mr. Cherney is “that he doesn’t place boundaries around what he’s interested in or what he thinks Soundstreams should do. The unknown excites him. That quality is rarely found in arts organizations.”

Producing Crusade, he recalls, was “a complex and constantly morphing process with quite a few scary surprises,” including a leaky roof in the warehouse/venue. “They, and Luminato, just rolled with the punches and came back more determined than before.”

The formula that sustains creativity into older age is a tricky concoction. But for Mr. Albery, it consists in part of ingredients that Mr. Cherney seems to have hard-wired into the DNA – always “brimming with excitement about the new music or event or fellow enthusiast he’s encountered...a wonderfully sophisticated naïveté, coupled with an intense capacity for enchantment – perfect ingredients for the making of a visionary producer.”

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