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The 10th annual 21C Music Festival at Toronto’s Koerner Hall includes a Taiko Live! concert by the Esprit Orchestra on Jan. 25.Malcolm Cook/Handout

For the culture industry, recovery from pandemic-era lockdowns has been a mixed bag.

On the one hand, Canada’s performing arts sector enjoyed a holiday season without any newly-mandated restrictions, closures or cancellations for the first time since the start of the pandemic, as Globe and Mail theatre critic Kelly Nestruck reported earlier this month.

On the other, live performance, including in the classical sphere, has not quite returned to business as usual yet. According to a study of North American performing arts organizations conducted last summer by analytics firm TRG Arts, the total number of tickets sold in the 2021-2022 season declined by 40 per cent compared to before the pandemic, with ticket revenues down 31 per cent over the same period.

In Europe, the Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Paris recently had to cancel a scheduled spring tour with its musical director, Gustavo Dudamel, because of financial pressures. In New York, the Metropolitan Opera announced a 10 per cent reduction in performances next season. The famed opera house is focusing on the development of new works as a way of reinventing itself and attracting much-needed audiences.

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein will perform at the 21C festival on Jan. 28.Graham Northrup/Handout

Some classical organizations had already begun to acknowledge the need for reinvention, even before the pandemic, and their efforts have helped lay the groundwork for what other institutions are experimenting with now. Director Peter Sellars famously presented Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at the 2010 Salzburg Festival in a theatrical fashion; the production subsequently enjoyed successful runs in New York and Berlin. In 2016 Canadian company Against the Grain put on a theatricalized version of Mozart’s Requiem at Roy Thomson Hall; an expanded video version of the work was done in 2021 and saw the small but mighty Against the Grain partner with the behemothic Canadian Opera Company.

The 10th annual 21C Music Festival at Toronto’s Koerner Hall (running until the end of January) is providing a showcase of innovation within the classical idiom. Committed to spotlighting the best of contemporary classical work, 21C opened last month with a multimedia performance work by San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet. Upcoming concerts include Taiko Live! by the Esprit Orchestra (Jan. 25) and American cellist Alisa Weilerstein’s Fragments (Jan. 28).

Both the Esprit and Weilerstein presentations acknowledge the stress of lockdown experiences while going beyond the traditional classical format, and might provide clues as to how to get shows in North America back on track.

“People are out of the habit of going out, and I think that’s part of the problem,” says Alex Pauk, Esprit Orchestra’s founder and music director. “How do you break that habit? Through creating something actually interesting.”

Founded in 1983, Esprit is Canada’s only full-sized, professional orchestra devoted to new music. The title of the concert, Taiko Live!, is a direct reference to the percussive quality of the program (taiko is a Japanese term referring to drums), and hints at the visceral nature of its works. Tabuh-tabuhan, written by Canadian composer Colin McPhee in 1936, incorporates Balinese musical sounds with three-movement orchestral form; Canadian composer James O’Callaghan’s Overbound mixes cello, electronics and orchestra. The second half of the program features the dramatic 1976 work Mono-Prism by Japanese composer Maki Ishii, which starts small and goes big (really big), performed by Japanese drum troupe Nagata Shachu.

Fragments, by contrast, only involves one player – Weilerstein herself – and integrates theatrical elements around Bach’s Cello Suites and the music of 27 contemporary composers, which is woven in and around it. Comprised of six hour-long chapters, Fragments will premiere its first two parts in Toronto before a presentation at New York’s Carnegie Hall in April. Weilerstein confirms that Chapters 3 and 4 are to be presented in the 2023-2024 season, with Chapters 5 and 6 planned for 2024-2025.

The acclaimed cellist had already recorded the famous Suites for Dutch label Pentatone but was inspired to go beyond the usual classical format during 2020 lockdowns, with livestream concerts providing inspiration. “The lighting was artful, thoughtful, sensitive to the music,” she recalls, “I never paid attention to that before – I didn’t think it was crucial, but it is. The entire aesthetic experience within a presentation should be thoughtful and intentional.”

Hanako Yamaguchi, artistic producer and adviser of Fragments, cocreated the multidisciplinary White Light Festival at New York’s Lincoln Center in 2010, and Weilerstein is quick to credit her with bringing on key contributors – director Elkhanah Pulitzer, scenic and lighting designer Seth Reiser and costume designer Carlos J. Soto. Yamaguchi made Weilerstein more aware of the inner workings of theatrical elements within a live presentation. “I was completely unfamiliar with it,” the cellist admits, underlining a vital point about the often siloed nature of the performing arts. “I know what I like but I had never thought about integrating those elements with what I am actually doing.”

Recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship in 2011, Weilerstein has performed with a range of celebrated orchestras, including the Staatskapelle Berlin, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. Pandemic cancellations forced her to contemplate the ways audiences might “connect with one another more deeply while preserving what we do well in the field of classical music. What can we do to make it a more visceral experience, to break down the walls between us?”

Such barrier-breaking exists through much of Taiko Live!, named for the concert’s central visual: an immense, seven-foot Japanese drum set on a riser in the middle of the stage.

“The audience will be looking at it, wondering what is coming,” says Esprit Orchestra’s Pauk, who adds that the members of Nagata Shachu will also provide a visual source of anticipation to those unfamiliar with Ishii’s work. “The audience might think they’re motionless, but really, the tiniest little wrist movements are creating these almost inaudible sounds. Who’s expecting a row of seven drummers to be on a stage, making almost no sounds?” Mono-Prism is a good symbol of “what the mainstream might be looking for: the unexpected.”

Cellist Cameron Crozman performs with electronic music as part of Canadian composer James O’Callaghan’s Overbound, which toys with audience experience through electronic means and elements considered unusual for a classical presentation.Handout

That need for the unexpected is a core part of Fragments, which does not provide program books until the concert’s end. Audiences are not aware which new works might be incorporated with Bach’s music, let alone how. “The goal is just to listen,” says Weilerstein. “It’s not so much about who the composers are as what they’re actually saying.”

O’Callaghan’s Overbound focuses on audience experience via electronic means, using elements considered unusual for a classical presentation. Eight loudspeakers will be spread throughout the audience, O’Callaghan will be doing live electronic music mixing and Canadian cellist Cameron Crozman, who becomes something of a character himself within a larger theatrical narrative, will perform an amplified cello part.

“The audience is intended to experience the internal workings of the soloist’s mind as he’s performing,” Pauk explains. Though cagey about revealing too many details, he is firm in his commitment to innovation. “We have to do something to bring people back,” he says, “to give them the realization that concert-going can be a heightened experience, that it’s not the same-old-same-old. A live experience should give an audience something beyond the easy comfort of staying home and watching Netflix.”

“Everyone is trying to figure out the solution to this problem,” Weilerstein says, “and there is no one solution, but you have to keep thinking and acting outside the box and be ready to experiment with what works and what doesn’t. It’s a lot of trial and error, but I am heartened to see people thinking creatively.”