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Violinist Jonathan Crow and cellist Joseph Johnson rehearse at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto. (Kevin Van Paassen for The Globe and Mail)
Violinist Jonathan Crow and cellist Joseph Johnson rehearse at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto. (Kevin Van Paassen for The Globe and Mail)


TSO’s mission to make classical music relevant to modern audiences Add to ...

Technology is changing our lives at a rapid pace, Italian novelist and semiotician Umberto Eco once told the world’s elite at its annual glittery conclave in Davos. However, he added, the spoon will never disappear. Because, he said, nothing else does what the spoon does as perfectly and efficiently.

And if you live in the world of classical music, that’s a sentiment you live by. Classical music is your spoon. No other music does what classical music does. No other music is as rich, as deep, as powerful, as resonant. Or so goes the argument.

Jonathan Crow and Joseph Johnson believe it wholeheartedly. Crow is the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster, Johnson its principal cellist. Together, they will be featured in the opening concerts of the TSO’s 93rd season this weekend, playing the Brahms Double Concerto, one of the standard works of the Western classical repertoire. The program also unashamedly includes Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and a long-dismissed orchestral chestnut, Leopold Stokowski’s transcription of Bach’s Organ Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, the piece that opened Walt Disney’s Fantasia in 1940.

Programming Beethoven’s Fifth and the Bach toccata as your season openers is like starting your ultrahip contemporary film festival with a screening of 101 Dalmatians. Nothing could be safer, it seems, nothing could be more conventional, nothing could be less challenging. But Beethoven’s Fifth was the height of revolutionary art when it was written. If it has descended into middlebrow kitsch since, that’s not Beethoven’s fault. In the right hands, the Fifth can once again spit fire and flash lightning storms across our consciousness. As Crow says, “Beethoven 5 is awesome. This is still incredible music.”

And Crow and Johnson are a new breed of classical musician, helping the traditional symphony orchestra articulate a future as well as a past. Both just flirting with 40, they are savvy, modern musicians who might just drag the cultural heritage of their chosen art into a snazzy, relevant dialogue with the 21st century. To them, it’s vital to do so.

“Everybody here understands what it’s like to be in an orchestra in the 2000s,” Crow says. “This isn’t the seventies any more, where you could just show up, play your Brahms and say to management: Sell us. Where people would routinely buy their subscription concerts at the beginning of the season and that would be that. The world is different now. We play to people with lots of entertainment choices. We have to understand how the modern world works.”

“We know we have to do more than just show up and play in the concert hall,” Johnson adds in counterpoint. “We need to interact with the community, do pop-up concerts, collaborate with other institutions [the TSO just acted as the house band for the Polaris prize announcement], be part of people’s lives. It’s necessary for our survival. But it’s also fun.”

Crow admits that the symphony orchestra was slow to understand the modern reality in which it now operates, where its financial survival is permanently fraught, its cultural relevance is a continuously open question, and its relationship to a multifaceted society, wild with competing values, attitudes and expression, is in desperate need of evolution. There’s work to be done to renovate this institution.

But there’s always Umberto Eco’s spoon in the background, the elephantine kitchen utensil in the room. Classical music can affect audiences, young and old, from all backgrounds, like no other musical experience.

Johnson notes that the myth of the homogenous, snowy-haired, walker-at-the-ready classical music audience doesn’t really apply here. “This is the third professional orchestra I’ve played with. What blew me away here was not only the diversity in age, compared to my previous orchestras, but the cultural diversity as well. It’s like the Toronto you see on the streets reconstituted inside the small box that is Roy Thomson Hall. It’s an audience I love playing for.”

Crow and Johnson are true believers, of course. Classical music is their life. But if their energy and vitality can break through the stultifying conventions of their chosen art, the future of the music they love might be secured anew. The symphony orchestra, one of the most conventional institutions in the Western world, unwilling symbol of elitism and cultural somnolence, might return to the living once again. Tonight, the Toronto Symphony begins its annual journey toward that goal.

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