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Toronto Symphony Orchestra's new CEO Mark Williams.Russell Lee/Handout

Mark Williams wants to redefine classical music’s place in Toronto.

To do this, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra CEO, who officially took the helm in April, has several important strategies. Key among them, he says, is diversifying the orchestra’s audience. “Ultimately what we want from our audiences is the same we want from our repertoire,” says Williams, who is the first Black CEO of a major orchestra in Canada. “It’s not to kick anyone out but to make the tent bigger, to open arms wider, to bring in more people.”

Williams’s hiring in January came after a period of managerial tumult at the TSO. After the departure of Jeff Melanson in 2016, the orchestra saw three different CEOs within two years before Williams was appointed. Artistically, things were similarly uncertain following the exit of Peter Oundjian in 2018 after 14 years as music director. Gustavo Gimeno began his tenure in the role two years ago, but because of the pandemic, had to wait until 2021 to enjoy his first full season.

Under Williams and Gimeno, the current season is brimming with must-see shows: Audiences can look forward to holiday favourites (Handel’s Messiah), performances from famous soloists (Yo-Yo Ma, Yefim Bronfman) and music from Canadian composers as well as classical names (Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler).

The orchestra is also offering numerous live film-score performances, including Black Panther in June. The TSO’s role is to “create opportunities for people who love music to attend,” says Williams. “Live film-score performance is a perfect example of bringing real orchestral music to an audience that might not really care about Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, but still want to come and enjoy live music.”

Noting the ever-changing demographics in Toronto and surrounding areas, Williams believes community-based strategies are needed, as much to attract new audiences as to keep existing ones. As in seasons past, the orchestra is presenting a set number of Sunday matinee performances at the George Weston Recital Hall in North York, as well as one concert at Massey Hall, the orchestra’s original home.

Though cagey about revealing future plans for new locales, the eagerness of the CEO – who calls himself an “adventurer” – is palpable. “I don’t think alternative spaces will ever replace hearing a proper orchestra in a proper concert hall,” he says, “but I am interested in finding opportunities to bring something that is completely unique. So can you go to Brampton, for instance, and experience something that could only happen in Brampton with the TSO?”

Presenting operas in-concert is another open question. “We have to do what they can’t do,” he says of partnering with the Canadian Opera Company in particular. “For me it would be very important to make sure we are bringing in a dimension or telling a story that couldn’t be told otherwise.”

Related to that is the issue of working with other arts companies, something Williams is equally keen to investigate, but with a proviso. “You need to work with organizations who hold quality in the same place your organization does. I think those things can activate the community, and activate listening in really interesting ways.”

Such activation of listening can be done in numerous ways, as the following four orchestras demonstrate. While the particular details of each may differ, what binds them is a commitment to their respective communities, an interest in creative partnerships, an open and fearless embrace of experimentation and an innate trust in their audiences.

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performs at three halls across London. The 5,000-plus-seat Royal Albert Hall is used for event-style concerts including live film-score performances and choral presentations related to both festive and themed programming.

As part of its Journeys of Discovery series, the RPO will be presenting Mahler’s Second Symphony (Resurrection) at the hall under the baton of music director Vasily Petrenko next spring.

But most of the series will take place at the 2,700-seat Royal Festival Hall (at the Southbank Centre), where the RPO will present five more concerts with various themes, including “Freedom,” to be led by TSO conductor laureate Andrew Davis.

The RPO also makes use of Cadogan Hall; the 953-seat venue is deceptive, for its size in no way limits its acoustic magnificence. Alexander Shelley, music director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra and the RPO’s principal associate conductor, curates the Cadogan series and will be leading two concerts at the hall featuring the works of Mendelssohn, Coleridge-Taylor and Lili Boulanger, among others.

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra skillfully balances an understanding of community and the need for risk-taking through an array of offerings, both online and live, in two distinct venues.

Conductor Jonathon Heyward, who replaces Marin Alsop as BSO music director in fall, 2023, comes to an orchestra that is as familiar with Beyonce as it is with Beethoven.

A program entitled “Black Violin” features violinist Kev Marcus and violist Wil B fusing classical with hip-hop. December sees “Tchaikovsky X Drake,” combining the works of the Toronto-born rapper and the Russian composer’s Fifth Symphony; in March the orchestra presents “Beethoven X Coldplay,” mixing the music of the British rock band with Beethoven’s Third Symphony. In the spring, “Calypso Fusion” features the music of Saint-Saëns, Stravinsky and steelpan artist Josanne Francis.

Such creative ambition extends to the virtual BSO OffStage, launched as a result of the pandemic. A subscription channel offering a range of orchestral performances, chamber concerts and special presentations, it recently broadcast the world-premiere version of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, told from the perspective of a Black American soldier during the Vietnam War.

Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin (Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra)

Open rehearsals, broadcasts at the Zeiss Planetarium Berlin, chief conductor and artistic director Vladimir Jurowski stepping off the podium to play piano at small chamber concerts – the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin adroitly reflects the eclecticism of its city while pushing audiences into new sonic territories.

Along with moderated rehearsals at the Haus des Rundfunks (a performance/broadcast space), the orchestra offers jazz and chamber concerts at both the Theater im Delphi (an 870-seat former silent-movie theatre) and Kuhlhaus Berlin, a converted warehouse, as well as its bases, the Philharmonie and Konzerthaus Berlin halls.

Works of forgotten composers (Andre Tchaikowsky, Paul Kletzki) sit comfortably alongside those by living artists (Elena Firsova, Brett Dean) and famous names (Mozart, Prokofiev, Schnittke). Much of what guides RSB choices is a quiet if powerful conviction to recognize a vast array of unrecognized artists and works, and to trust audiences will follow (or not), without any hand-wringing, let alone hand-holding.

The RSB’s annual New Year’s Eve concerts this year will feature a new vocal work by German composer Ralf Hoyer as well as Beethoven’s 9th, with Ukrainian conductor Natalia Ponomarchuk leading the work’s final two movements, including the famous Ode to Joy.

Hong Kong Philharmonic

The assortment of cultural connections woven throughout the work of the Hong Kong Philharmonic is striking, though their predilection for vocal presentation isn’t new.

Between 2015 and 2018, the orchestra, under music director Jaap van Zweden, completed a critically hailed, award-winning recording project of Wagner’s Ring Cycle for Naxos records. It also marked the first in-concert performance of the German composer’s operatic cycle in Hong Kong.

This season features Fauré's Requiem, Verdi’s La traviata (with Opera Hong Kong) and a partnership with Hong Kong Ballet consisting of two new works: Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana staged by HKB artistic director Septime Webre (Asia premiere) and The Last Song, by HKB choreographer-in-residence Ricky Hu Songwei, set to the music of Bach (world premiere).

In December the HK Phil is presenting an ambitious live film-score performance directly tied to Chinese cultural history. Raining Petals, based on the 1957 Cantonese opera The Flower Princess by Tong Dik Sang, will enjoy a new “orchestral re-imagining” by composer Lee Chi-yi, former resident composer of National Chinese Orchestra Taiwan, and led by Lio Kuokman, resident conductor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic.

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