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Music Royal Conservatory’s ambitious 21C is a new kind of music festival

Mervon Mehta is the programming guru behind the Royal Conservatory of Music’s ambitious contemporary music festival, 21C.

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Being a classical arts presenter has never been for the faint of heart, no matter how much you may think it an elite, discreet profession full of high teas and quiet conversation. The arts world sits firmly within the entertainment business on this continent, and a classical music impresario is as worried about budgets, marketing, bums in seats, social media, trends and fashion as your average pop promoter. Maybe, because of the misunderstood nature of the product, even more so.

And if that's always been the case for the high arts in North America, it's even more difficult these days as all the old preconceptions – of what the content is, who it's for, how to reach a potential audience, find new performers – are being destroyed by the new means of communication that day by day, click by click, are transforming our world.

Enter Mervon Mehta, the programming guru behind the Royal Conservatory of Music's ambitious contemporary music festival, 21C, which opens tonight in Koerner Hall, a five-day sampling of high eclecticism and creativity that fits no one's traditional definition of a "new music" festival. Thank goodness.

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"I remember talking to people in the music business when we were thinking of launching this festival three years ago," Mehta tells me, "and they said, 'Oh, so you're going to do a lot of Schoenberg and Bartok.' I said, no, we're not going to touch that stuff, it's so old – it's 50, 60, 80 years old!"

Instead, Mehta is featuring the world-famous Kronos Quartet, presenting a fantastic program this evening which includes the world premiere of a piece written for them by Canadian vocal phenom Tanya Tagaq. Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau will be here on Thursday playing Bach, and his own personal reactions to Bach, partly commissioned by Mehta and the RCM. John Oswald will be presenting two Friday evening programs of his individual music, entirely in the dark.

Indie ambient hero Jherek Bischoff will be sharing the bill with Brooklyn-based Dawn of Midi and the Visit on Saturday, with music that is generally heard in clubs in the Entertainment district, not in a "stuffy" concert hall. And on Sunday, for good measure, a musician who is generally happily heard in just such a hall, Canadian superstar violinist James Ehnes will be part of the festival – but with four pieces of newly composed music, along with his Beethoven.

It's all "new" music. It's all contemporary. It all speaks to the wonderfully eclectic and ever-changing musical universe out there. It all resonates with an audience. And it's what the conservatory's 21C Music Festival is all about. About challenging boundaries and expectations.

Mehta remembers how he got involved with the Mehldau commission – Three Pieces After Bach. "I've presented Brad several times, and his manager called and said 'Brad's doing this kind of wacky project.' [Wacky to the manager, anyway.] 'He wants to play Bach and do these variations on Bach – we've had some interest in commissioning them from Carnegie Hall and Wigmore Hall, and we thought – you're the kind of presenter that might go for something like that' And he was right. We jumped at the chance. It's just the kind of content we're looking for."

However, as exciting as the festival's lineup may be, those tuned into what's happening in contemporary music these days in all genres, in fact, as the idea of genre gets obliterated altogether, the new world has not quite eclipsed the old. Sales are good for this year's festival – the best ever – but there are still a lot of seats to be filled. Skepticism is natural on both sides of the musical generational divide: Mehta has to convince the younger audiences who might listen to Bischoff in a club to get them to listen to him in "a bastion of culture called the Royal Conservatory of Music."

On the other hand, the traditional public that loves that particular bastion of culture isn't quite sure what to make of the novelty the 21C Music Festival includes, and whether it belongs in that bastion at all. What is a turn-on for one group of potential listeners is a turn-off for another – or so they think. It's Mehta's job to try and convince everyone that all the old divisions and stereotypes are increasingly irrelevant today; that music is entering a new phase of quite exceptional creativity that has remarkably wide appeal.

And getting that message across has its own challenges. The indie crowd he is trying to attract uses social media almost exclusively for determining their entertainment choices. They are also notoriously late deciders for concert events. On the other hand, Mehta's traditional audience still gets a 50-page printed brochure mailed to their house every year, from which they make their choices, "sitting at the coffee table," as Mehta says, "circling things with their pens." Not that's there anything wrong with either approach, but the dual images – of some people, pens in hand, making decisions as opposed to others with phones in hand, making decisions – symbolizes the complex world in which Mervon Mehta is forced to work.

Mehta, of course, wants all his audiences ideally to come to the same concerts, enjoy the same music and be moved by the same artistry. "There will always be and always has been a desire for people to come together to experience music as a group – there's a collective need to be together rather than in front of a screen , or listening to a CD." The Conservatory's 21C Music Festival is an ambitious step to serve just that collective need with music written in expression of the contemporary world in which we all dwell.

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