The Toronto Symphony Orchestra announced its 2017-18 season Wednesday, the 14th and last under the leadership of music director Peter Oundjian. Only Sir Ernest Macmillan has held the post longer in the TSO's 95-year history. And Oundjian, along with an artistic team led by Loie Fallis, has put together a clever and stylish season, one with lots of novelties, as well as a powerful assortment of old favourites and new approaches.
The season is book-ended by two fascinating months of programming, in September and October, 2017, and then again in June of 2018. The fall is dominated by Canadian music, as part of the TSO's Canada Mosaic program, supported by the Government of Canada, which celebrates the country's sesquicentennial. That program actually began last Saturday with a concert of all-Canadian music, but some of its most interesting moments will come next fall. Included in these are Mychael Danna's suite adapted from his score for Life of Pi, new commissions from Kelly-Marie Murphy, Alexina Louie and Howard Shore, a performance of Adizocan, a multimedia portrait of indigenous life, and special concerts devoted to the life and work of Glenn Gould and Maureen Forrester. It's hard to remember the last time virtually every TSO concert for over a month presented something unique.
And then in June of 2018, the TSO is presenting a series of farewell concerts for Oundjian, starting June 13 with Oundjian conducting Jean-Yves Thibaudet in a performance of Gershwin's Concerto in F as well as Brahms's First Symphony, continuing through a performance of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto with Daniil Trifonov, an evening with actor Christopher Plummer and the TSO, and ending with two ninth symphonies (on different nights) – Mahler's and Beethoven's. (Beethoven's Ninth will be Oundjian's final performance of his final season as TSO's music director.)
In between the excitement in the fall, and the emotion in June, the orchestra will bring back a lot of its favourite programming. The two festivals Oundjian initiated as music director, the Mozart Festival in January and New Creations in June, will make their now-annual appearances. There will be three Rob Kapilow-led "What Makes It Great" concerts, pops and kids concerts, and movie nights with live renditions of the scores to Home Alone, The Wizard of Oz and Jaws.
As well, highlights of the season include pianist Angela Hewitt performing Mozart and Bach concertos, leading the orchestra from the keyboard; a special Oundjian-led concert devoted to the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams; new commissions from Canadian composers Jeffrey Ryan and John Estacio; a concert version of Leonard Bernstein's Candide conducted by Bramwell Tovey; and a new edition of Bruckner's Eighth Symphony.
It's hard for Oundjian not to look backward as he contemplates his last season. "When I got here," he said in an interview, "there was a lot of bitterness within the institution that had been developing over many years. I think what the orchestra lacked was a feeling of inclusiveness and connection with the city, which created a lot of self-doubt in the players' minds. I think that has changed. We've gone from some degree of self-doubt to a large degree of self-respect – the feeling that people do care about us."
It will be interesting to see what happens to the Toronto Symphony in the post-Oundjian era. In many ways, he has been a fundamental support and source of stability in the TSO's wild ride of the past two years, which has seen the rise and fall of former CEO Jeff Melanson, the organization's near-financial-death experience of fiscal 2015-16 and the still-unexplained mass resignation of seven of its board members in December.
At the moment, the TSO is seeking a permanent CEO as well as Oundjian's replacement as music director. More importantly, perhaps, the organization needs to decide what kind of an orchestra it wants to be in the future – one that concentrates on its home community or an international public, one that stresses traditional repertoire or new repertoire, one that engages with its regular community or develops new communities.
All orchestras in North America face similar problems in today's complicated arts world, but the TSO's unique recent history seems to make these questions more acute here than for other institutions.