How do you get to Koerner Hall? Practise, practise, practise – or simply show up. In September, the Toronto venue will give anyone with a dream and some chutzpah the chance to perform onstage in the world-class acoustic gem of a concert hall, for five minutes (or less).
"I've heard from so many people who are ex-RCM students or sing in the choir or even play the kazoo: 'What must it be like to get on that stage?,'" says Mervon Mehta, executive director of performing arts at the Royal Conservatory of Music. "So here's their chance."
The Koerner Hall Free for All! event – scheduled for Sept. 27 as part of Culture Days – kicks off the RCM's 2014-15 season, which was announced Tuesday.
There are 100 concerts scheduled for the season, including a gala show with virtuoso flute player Sir James Galway and his wife Lady Jeanne Galway, also a flutist; the Toronto debut of the China NCPA Orchestra led by principal conductor Lu Jia; Bruce Cockburn's Koerner Hall debut; and a rare reunion that will have huge resonance for the Toronto jazz community: a performance of Rob McConnell's Boss Brass. McConnell died in 2010, and his widow gave her blessing to this reunion, which will assemble 21 of his long-time band members, including Guido Basso and Terry Clarke.
Leading up to the July, 2015, Toronto Pan Am Games, a special concert series, Music of the Americas, will feature six concerts with an emphasis on indigenous, roots and folk performers, including Buffy Sainte-Marie, Jamaican jazz pianist Monty Alexander and his Harlem-Kingston Express, and Jayme Stone's Lomax Project, celebrating the work of U.S. folklorist and field-recording pioneer Alan Lomax.
A new family concert series is billed as "grown-up" concerts for younger audiences and their families. "There's really been a gap in our programming since we started five years ago. We have 1,000 or 2,000 people taking music lessons here every week, but we have no concerts specifically for younger audiences until now," says Mehta. Highlights include former 10,000 Maniacs lead singer Natalie Merchant performing from her album Leave Your Sleep; and Stewart Goodyear playing a solo piano version of The Nutcracker while young dancers and singers perform, minus costumes, sets and lights. "Maybe that's an entry point for somebody who doesn't want to go to the ballet and wear their patent-leather shoes and their tutus," says Mehta.
Other notable events on the genre-busting schedule include Zimbabwean star Oliver (Tuku) Mtukudzi performing on Zimbabwe's Independence Day; celebrated violinist and conductor Pinchas Zukerman with his Zukerman Chamber Players in a program of Schumann and Brahms; and Chilly Gonzales playing his new works for piano with the Kaiser Quartett.
"It's not just a venue for a certain segment of the population; it really is a venue for everybody," says Mehta. "And that goes back to the Free for All – how do we open up the walls to more and more people?"
Details about how to participate in the Free for All are to be released in August. If Mehta's earlier experience is any indication, expect a great deal of interest. When he was at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, the venue inaugurated a $6-million organ by inviting the public to play it for a small fee. "We had lineups around the block because people just wanted to play. And they weren't all organists; there were parents who paid 25 bucks so their kid could play Chopsticks on this massive organ," says Mehta. "It was really kind of a way to open up our walls, break down our walls, be more populist, let people experience what musicians experience every day, at their own level."