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Farewell to Massey Hall -- the last TSO concert at Massey Hall before they moved to Roy Thomson Hall, June 4 1982. Courtesy of TSO Archives

Farewell to Massey Hall on June 4, 1982, was the last TSO concert at Massey Hall before they moved to Roy Thomson Hall. The TSO is nearing its 100th anniversary concert.Courtesy of TSO Archives

The question was met, fittingly, with 10 seconds of silence.

“I want to choose the right words,” said Gustavo Gimeno, the eleventh music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, as he gingerly approached the contentious issue of applause between movements.

“The only moment where I would find it painful is when people applaud too early after the end of a movement – or the end of a symphony – that is intimate, beautiful and fragile.

“But if there is a huge ending, loud and enthusiastic, and people jump from their chairs? Welcome!”

We can predict a prompt ovation after the conclusion of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony on Feb. 17 in Massey Hall, the heritage facility where the performing history of the TSO began, with a program including the same score, almost 100 years ago. But preferably not after the pianissimo close of the first movement.

Ahead of their return to Massey Hall, TSO musicians recall strange odours, a sleeping superstar and an imperfect ancestral home

The subject is touchy because of the common belief that rogue clapping, vexatious as it might be for seasoned concertgoers, is a fair barometer of the presence of new customers, which all orchestra managers in their right minds wish to attract, especially in the wake of COVID-19 disruptions.

A case can be made that the pandemic recovery in Toronto is under way. After three COVID-battered seasons had the paradoxical effect of leaving the TSO last September with an accumulated surplus of $781,000, crowds have been remarkably robust. All that talk about live audiences lost forever to Netflix and home streaming turned out to be just that.

“We are in a good place with our ticket sales,” said Mark Williams, the orchestra’s CEO of 10 months, who was hired away from the Cleveland Orchestra, one of the traditional (and so-called) “big five” American ensembles. “But I do not take if for granted.”

Release from COVID-19 restrictions is surely one explanation for the uptick. Another obvious cause is that people of all kinds continue to respond positively to symphonic music well performed, even as contemporary culture warriors insist that the canon is kaput.

Is TSO due for a revolution? Williams sits firmly on the fence.

“About 75 per cent of our subscription programs include a work by a woman or a BIPOC person,” he says. “But we’re also playing Beethoven, Haydn and Bruckner. You can be diverse without leaving behind what we have.”

The Massey Hall program includes Max Bruch’s formerly standard Violin Concerto No. 1 (with the conductor’s fellow Spaniard, María Dueñas, as soloist) and the Symphony No. 2 of the Berlin-based Canadian, Samy Moussa.

This 20-minute score, a TSO commission, also figures on a three-concert tour that takes the orchestra to Ottawa, New York and Chicago from Feb. 11 to 14.

Even if the TSO does not enjoy the worldwide name recognition of a “big five” band, it is known by informed listeners to be an orchestra that sounds great on a good day.

Yet it has often found itself in the headlines for the wrong reasons. After the stability that marked the businesslike front-office style of Walter Homburger, managing director from 1962 to 1987, governance and administration have seemed less symphonic than operatic.

It still astonishing to read in Begins With the Oboe, the late Richard Warren’s authorized history of the orchestra, that the TSO stumbled through much of the 1990s without a permanent chief executive officer (as managing directors came to be called owing to title inflation).

The century began, after a 2001 bankruptcy scare, with a dozen years of relative peace under Andrew Shaw. Then the front-office revolving door resumed its motion. Jeff Melanson (exit in 2016) and Matthew Loden (exit in 2021) added their names to the long list of short-term CEOs, the former, a Canadian, leaving in the wake of a sensational breakup with the singer and heiress Eleanor McCain; the latter, an American, opting for an academic position in his hometown of Houston.

In 1991, with a $3.7-million deficit looming, the musicians agreed to reduce their working year from 50 to 42 weeks (the contract now calls for 43 weeks), resulting in a 15 per cent pay cut and obliterating the summer season, an important outreach platform. Both the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, in Canada’s second-largest city, and its rival the Orchestre Métropolitain, attract huge crowds with their outdoor concerts.

Another problem is the enduring reputation of Roy Thomson Hall as something less than a great place to hear an orchestra, even though a 2002 renovation vastly improved the sonic environment. It will be interesting on Feb. 17 to compare Massey Hall with its successor venue.

Through all the cycles of boom and bust, the TSO could rely on dedicated artistic leadership. The multinational parade includes the Viennese Luigi von Kunits (1923–1931); the Canadian Sir Ernest MacMillan (1931–1956); Czech-born Walter Susskind (1957–1964); the Japanese Seiji Ozawa (1965–1969); another Czech, Karel Ančerl (1969–1972); and, as resident conductor, the Canadian Victor Feldbrill (1973–1975).

The orchestra’s modern history might be said to have begun in 1975 with the arrival of the Cambridge organ scholar Andrew Davis, (Sir Andrew since 1992) who looked younger than his 31 years. His repertoire preferences ran to Mahler, Nielsen, Richard Strauss, Janáček and contemporary English composers such as Michael Tippett. William Walton’s noisy cantata Belshazzar’s Feast was, surprisingly, the main item on the orchestra’s inaugural 1982 program in Roy Thomson Hall. A full-scale (rather than fashionably baroque) Messiah was notable among his many recordings.

It is not altogether apparent that Davis’s exit in 1988 was voluntary, but his career flourished back home and elsewhere. That there are no hard feelings is made clear by his regular return visits as conductor laureate and his service as TSO interim artistic director from 2018 to 2020.

In 1989 the orchestra hired the rock-solid German maestro Günther Herbig on the strength of a string of acclaimed guest appearances. His disciplined approach proved problematic in the long run.

Another less-than-perfect fit was with the Finnish Jukka-Pekka Saraste, music director from 1994 to 2001, who was vocal about his unhappiness with Roy Thomson Hall and had to endure a period of financial distress and administrative turmoil. Still, he made recordings and cultivated an aptitude for his countryman Sibelius, which has not disappeared.

The arrival of Toronto-born, British-educated Peter Oundjian in 2004 was marketed as a rebirth of the orchestra, and so it was. Respected by the musicians for his years as the first violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet, he brought a natural affinity for Brahms, Tchaikovsky and the Brits to the podium, as well as less predictable insight into Shostakovich. About half of the present 93 TSO players are Oundjian hires. He holds the title of conductor emeritus.

And now Gimeno, 46, a former percussionist in the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra who learned from a parade of distinguished conductors, including his mentor, the late Mariss Jansons. His term got off to a necessarily slow start in September, 2020, a year ravaged by COVID-19.

He has made amends with concerts that are consistently well received, but the extent to which Gimeno can galvanize the potential of the TSO as a civic organism remains to be seen. The surprising extension of his contract to 2030 implies unusual faith on the part of the board.

Williams, 43, is signed up until 2027 and gives every indication of staying put. “I knew that it required a meaningful commitment,” he said of his engagement last year. Government funding is stable. A $10-million donation in 2019 from the estate of H. Thomas and Mary Beck is clearly a source of comfort.

As for Toronto and its centenarian symphony, success in surmounting obstacles in the past suggests that the future is in some basic way secure. “We aren’t worried about posterity,” a former TSO chairman, Bob Rae, once wrote, riffing on a well-known quotation by Duke Ellington. “We just want it to sound good.”

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