One of the great anomalies in the world of classical music these days is that the performers onstage in our most prestigious ensembles are often two, three, even four decades younger than the members of their audience. Check out any of our big-name classical performing groups – the Toronto Symphony, Tafelmusik, the COC Orchestra. Fresh, young instrumentalists are everywhere.
However, if many of the performers in the classical world are youthful, most everything else about it is not. The repertoire, the conventions, the trappings, the zeitgeist of classical music is depressingly ancient – put in place more than a hundred years ago and relatively unchanged since.
Eric Paetkau is trying to do something about that. On Friday evening (May 16, 8p.m.), his new-ish Toronto orchestra, the Group of 27, will be giving the last concert of their season at Trinity-St. Paul's Centre.
But as the musicians file onstage, they won't know what pieces they're going to be playing.
On their music stands will be the copies of four complete symphonies they've all played before at one time or another – one by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. The Group will be playing one movement of each – but exactly which movement will be decided by the audience then and there in the hall.
The audience picks the first movement of the Beethoven, let's say, the second movement of the Haydn, the third of the Schubert, and the finale of the Mozart. After the choices are made,
Paetkau picks up his baton, and away the musicians go. Not quite, but almost, for the first time together. It sounds very exciting. And different.
And it's not just a gimmick. The Group of 27 is a serious music ensemble.
"These are immensely talented musicians," music director Paetkau, the former resident conductor of Quebec's Les Violons du Roy, tells me, "and we noticed that the first rehearsals of our regular concerts always sounds fantastic. Everyone's listening intently, the energy level is remarkable. So we decided to try and recreate that level of intensity in a concert situation – have the orchestra members playing on the edges of their seats."
And, although Paetkau doesn't mention it, this sense of playing on the fly is also historically exact. We know from composers' letters that the original performances of many of these works might have been created under circumstances not that different from the ones we'll hear at Trinity-St. Paul's. (And, to balance the program, there will be a "normal" performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony as well)
The exuberance and confidence of Eric Paetkau is part of the appeal of the Group of 27. Begun as a pickup band on a per-occasion basis in 2007, the orchestra slowly developed until it started presenting a four-concert season last year. This season, it has added chamber recitals, so that, all in all, the Group has presented more than a dozen concerts this year. Not bad for a new orchestra trying to make a go of it at a time when more established organizations are struggling.
"When I started," Eric Paetkau says, "one thing I had in abundance was naiveté. Not on the musical side – but on the administrative side. I had a lot to learn."
And learn he has. The Group formed a board in 2009, now has a managing director and has slowly, but surely, inched its way toward sustainability. But the key to the organization's success is its musicians. The chamber-sized Group of 27 is made up of the finest, generally young, musicians in the city – who normally play for the Toronto Symphony, the Canadian Opera Company orchestra and Tafelmusik. Paetkau got to know these musicians when he was making a career for himself as a freelance violist in the city.
"When I started my conducting career, I asked myself, 'What if I put all these youngish, energetic people together and formed a group?' It has to work – they're such fantastic musicians."
The accuracy of Paetkau's predictions will be on display at Trinity-St. Paul's. And if you go, vote for the finale of the Beethoven to end the DIY symphony. It's the best of the bunch.