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Hrishikesh Hirway

Musician Hrishikesh Hirway.Ash Green/Handout

About a decade ago, the musician Hrishikesh Hirway had a vision. Inspired by the work of the English composer Benjamin Britten – and, more recently, its interpolation by the filmmaker Wes Anderson in the end credits of his 2012 film, Moonrise Kingdom – Hirway toyed with the idea of putting a classical spin on his contemporary music podcast Song Exploder, which uses reverse engineering to unspool a song’s production through its “stems,” the individual elements that eventually get layered together to create a track.

Despite his initial excitement, Hirway ultimately dismissed the idea as too fantastical to pursue. He had all but forgotten his intentions when, a few years back, he was unexpectedly approached by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to collaborate on a special episode of the series, “It felt like somebody reached into my brain and said, ‘Remember when you wanted to do this? Now we’re going to give you a chance!’’

On April 5, Hirway, working alongside TSO musical director Gustavo Gimeno, will get to live out his fantasy. Presented under the title “Symphony Exploder,” Hirway, Gimeno and the TSO are set to dissect one of the most famous modern classical compositions, Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, before a live audience.

For Hirway, who was more familiar with the American punk band Rites of Spring than the ballet when he was approached by the TSO, “Symphony Exploder” is an ultimate proof of concept; a justification that any piece of music, when approached with curiosity, can be more than the sum of its parts.

But for Gimeno, and indeed the more than a century old TSO itself, the collaboration is the latest endeavour to grapple with relevance amidst the cacophony of modern entertainment.

At the heart of “Symphony Exploder’' lies a mission to democratize classical music, making it accessible and compelling for a wider audience, he explained. But it goes further than that. By reaching beyond its typical audience, Gimeno’s hopes to find a new international platform for Toronto’s orchestra.

“We want our people to be proud of this orchestra and for people in the world to know who they are,” he stated. “We are constantly asking ourselves, what do we represent to people in Toronto, in Canada, in the world?”

It’s with this in mind that the musical director chose Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which, when performed for the first time in May of 1913, provoked its Parisian audience to riot, and has since become a catalyst for modernist music, evoked by famous jazz musicians and Disney films alike.

Initially unfamiliar with the Song Exploder format, when Gimeno was introduced to Hirway’s production and interview style, which involves sitting down with popular artists such as U2 or Billie Eilish to get to the heart of their musical intentions, his mind immediately gravitated to The Rite of Spring.

“It’s broken up like a pop album,” the 48-year-old Spaniard explained of the composition. “Every three minutes you have a new section.”

Moreover, Stravinsky and the TSO have a history: The composer’s final conducting appearance took place at Massey Hall in 1967.

Both maestros say “Symphony Exploder” will take a more holistic approach to the composition: addressing the narratives surrounding The Rite of Spring as much as the work itself.

“Of course, we must discuss the influence of the asymmetry of rhythm, the cluster harmonies, the musical things that define The Rite,” Gimeno said. “But my personal challenge is not to take it for granted.”

“I grew up with it, I studied it, I played it in a youth orchestra and then symphonic orchestras, I have conducted it, I have recorded it. I know that score with the precision of a microscope,” he continued. “But now I am given the opportunity to look at it through fresh eyes. To see it from a distance, to study what was going on in the mind of a genius.”

By contrast, Hirway says his approach is to apply a genuine naiveté. “I’ve taken piano lessons over the years. And that’s primarily the way that I interact with classical music,” he explained, adding that he mostly listens to classical music nowadays as inspiration when composing a film score. “I’m trying to be a curious member of the audience who just happens to be the one with the mic and gets to ask the questions that maybe other people want the answers to as well.”

Asked about this style of inquisition, Gimeno offers a gentle smile. “Hrishi’s gift is that he is a great communicator,” he said. “Someone who can create bridges.”

In that way, he went on, the two men see eye to eye on the value of such undertakings. Each arrives with their own intention, and they work together to bridge their ambitions to a greater good.

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