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Music

Canada Mosaic: Imperfect but important

Peter Oundjian conducting the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, who will perform the first concert in the Canada Mosaic series.

The government-sponsored celebration of homegrown music offers a surprisingly rare chance to recognize classical composers

The enthusiasm spills from Adrian Fung, even through the tinny speaker of my cellphone.

Fung is an award-winning musician, the founding cellist of Toronto’s Afiara Quartet, but it’s his day job he’s talking about this morning – vice-president of innovation for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

Well, that and Canada Mosaic, a government-sponsored, TSO-administered celebration of Canadian music tied to the country’s sesquicentennial.

Fung has spent the past year or so putting together the details of a complicated national partnership that involves 40 different orchestras, upwards of 60 new commissions, and scheduling and logistical nightmares that have put the MBA he received from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management last year to good use.

But the details are all falling into place, and the party is about to begin.

The first concert in the Canada Mosaic project takes place Saturday night at Roy Thomson Hall, with conductors Alain Trudel and Victor Feldbrill leading the orchestra in works by John Weinzweig, Godfrey Ridout, Pierre Mercure, Jean Coulthard and André Mathieu. The concert will begin with a two-minute opening fanfare by Trudel – one of 40 such “sesquies,” as they’re being called, that Fung and the Canada Mosaic team have commissioned across the country for Canada Mosaic.

It’s an odd concert to begin the celebrations in a way – except for the Trudel piece, it features a collection of Canadian “chestnuts” that were all composed decades ago: a firm look backward to start a program that has looking forward as one of its goals.

However, although Fung is checking the archives to make sure, it’s possible that Saturday’s concert might be the first time, or one of only a few times in its history, that the TSO has devoted an entire concert to Canadian music. So even this collection of the familiar is a breakthrough.

Like any artistic project invented and funded by the government, there is an “elephant designed by a committee” aspect to Canada Mosaic.

Although the project has been in operation in one way or another for almost two years, major symphony orchestras often plan their seasons four or five years in advance, so many groups have been unable to fit potential new Canada Mosaic commissions and concerts into previously planned seasons.

Many orchestras, understandably, don’t want to perform pieces they have neither seen nor heard. Composers the Canada Mosaic team approached were booked themselves with other commitments and had to take a pass. And finally, the federal government’s grant money, $7.5-million altogether, originally had to be spent before the project and the sesquicentennial itself turned into a pumpkin on midnight of Dec. 31, 2017. However, an exception was made to the last restriction to allow the commissioned pieces to be part of an orchestra’s 2017-18 season – that is, to be performed up to the end of March, 2018 – which is when some of the more ambitious projects have been scheduled.

Even with all these complications, Canada Mosaic does have some intriguing and interesting features.

Along with the 40 two-minute “sesquies,” nominated by and shared among 40 Canadian orchestras (the somewhat gimmicky part of the project), there are some important commissions and concerts planned for Canada Mosaic – hopefully works that can have a life long after the 2017 confetti and streamers have been stuffed into the recycling bins.

Perhaps the most interesting of these is a triple concerto that Canada Mosaic commissioned from famed Canadian composer Alexina Louie to feature the concertmasters of the TSO, Montreal Symphony Orchestra and National Arts Centre Orchestra. The world premiere of the piece will be in September in Toronto, with performances in Montreal and Ottawa to follow.

Canada Mosaic will include atribute to Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, which will be first heard in Toronto in September.

As well, as part of a Glenn Gould tribute concert that will be first heard in Toronto in September, composer Kelly-Marie Murphy has been commissioned to provide a new work.

Along with the Louie and Murphy commissions, Canadian film composers Howard Shore and Mychael Danna have received Canada Mosaic commissions: Danna to rework his Oscar-winning Life of Pi score as a concert suite and Shore to write a new work for mezzo-soprano and orchestra to be featured in a Maureen Forrester tribute concert in the fall.

And around the TSO’s annual New Creations Festival this spring, there will be new works by Owen Pallett, Tanya Tagaq, Nicole Lizée, Cassandra Miller and Jordan Pal.

That’s just a sampling of what Canada Mosaic has been able to create. Fung says he’s been working with a “dream team” of Canadian composers.

New work by Tanya Tagaq will be included in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s annual New Creations Festival this spring.

There are educational components to Canada Mosaic as well, including new uses of technology to allow listeners to reach right in and observe an orchestra from many different viewing angles of their choice.

The very complicated business of getting different orchestras to perform the same works within a single season has also forged significant new links between performing ensembles. But the commissions must be Canada Mosaic’s most permanent legacy.

Canadian classical composers are among the last group of Canadian artists – a group that includes writers, visual artists, filmmakers, pop and classical performers, designers and architects – to achieve international success. It’s not from a lack of talent.

Artists need recognition. Recognition builds confidence. Confidence builds success. Success builds recognition.

It’s a circle that begins with a commitment to the unknown, to the new. Canada Mosaic may not be perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Canadian Legacy, the inaugural concert of the TSO’s Canada Mosaic project, takes place Jan. 21, 7:30 p.m., at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall (tso.ca).

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