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The Globe and Mail

Toronto Symphony Orchestra sampler shows why classical matters

Violinist Joshua Bell gave the TSO audience a masterclass in effective, virtuosic playing in Edouard Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Season Opener
Roy Thomson Hall

There was a festive atmosphere at Roy Thomson Hall as the Toronto Symphony Orchestra inaugurated its 93rd consecutive season in this city. In the lobby, grandees from CIBC, Deloitte & Touche and Goldman Sachs nibbled canapés and sipped champagne in glittery evening dress.

On stage, the 100 or so musicians of the TSO still basked in the afterglow of their summer tour of Europe that took them from Austria to Iceland. There will always be something impressive about the sheer size and presence of a modern symphony orchestra, a throwback to a more opulent period in our cultural history, a time when more was better, budgets be damned.

There are troubles on the horizon as the TSO season begins, a statement that's probably only been made 92 other times in its history.

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But the 21st century presents distinct challenges to what's essentially a 19th-century institution. The support structure for classical music is fast disappearing: Record stores, by and large, no longer exist; newspapers have reduced their coverage of the arts (among other things) in response to cataclysmic changes in that industry; schools abandoned music education a decade ago; the CBC basically stopped recording concerts as it changed formats; and, social media has made marketing all cultural products a new ball game.

Identifying an audience for classical music products demands new thinking as demographics shift in modern North America.

Classical organizations are dealing with these changes in the cultural climate in their own manner, some more successfully than others. In the TSO's case, the organization is coming off a year when deficits started to increase, with attendance faltering slightly in a tough economic climate, and fundraising failing to keep pace. And, unlike the professional theatre, where companies can reduce the number of performances they offer, and scale back the size of their casts to meet financial exigencies, a symphony orchestra is stuck. The TSO has 80 or so players on constant contract, and will present (if my math is correct) 109 concerts between now and mid-June, the equivalent of one every 2 1/2 days. In a hall that has 2,600 seats, at least 80 per cent of them have to be full for every one of those 109 performances if the organization hopes to stay financially solvent.

Would you take on the management of this organization under those terms?

Well, Jeff Melanson has. He is the "superstar" arts administrator, fresh off a controversial and ambitious tenure at the Banff Centre, who will officially take over the presidency of the TSO in November, but who already is on the job (he was introduced from the audience Wednesday night).

Melanson probably has not yet figured out exactly how to set the markers of his tenure, but as he contemplates his new job, here are some things he might think about, some positives among the challenges his organization faces.

Chief among them is the fact that classical music provides something that is simply unavailable anywhere else in our society. It is a unique aesthetic product in that its very age and history can work in its favour, providing emotional and cultural experiences rare in our modern, disposable world. And the TSO's opening concert provided a window on that world. In many ways, it was a bit of a superficial evening, full of sound and fury, with some of the great showpieces of the classical repertoire on display – the Roman Carnival Overture by Hector Berlioz to open the show, and the tuneful, exotic Capriccio Espagnole of Rimsky-Korsakov to end it.

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But in between, violinist Joshua Bell gave the TSO audience a masterclass in effective, virtuosic playing in Edouard Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole. Over the course of this concerto's four movements, Bell reminded us of why we use the word "play" to describe the execution of a piece of music. Seductive, funny, expressive, full of beauty, Bell's mastery over his instrument and his relationship both to the orchestra and us provided an aesthetic experience hard to replicate outside the concert hall.

Classical music provides a special combination of the visceral connection of pop music along with the intellectual heft of a puzzle that's especially satisfying in its solution – a combination of expression and form that resonates with audiences familiar and unfamiliar with its charms. That combination may not be able to overcome all the obstacles that stand between a symphony orchestra and artistic success in a complex, multifaceted modern world. But it has to be the starting point from which the battle begins.

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