I never thought I’d be the first of anything. And the fact that I’m the first Black man to lead a major North American orchestra is astounding. I’m very proud. I know how important representation is, and my hope is that people will see me and think, If he likes orchestra music, then maybe I could, too. But I’m also quite sad, because it’s 2022, and we’re still talking about the first X. I’m not saying we shouldn’t address it; we are where we are, and we have to talk about it. But it’s difficult being the person in that role, because you’re constantly balancing being a symbol and just being the person you are, with all your abilities and foibles.
There’s a lot that people get wrong about orchestras. Many people believe this music is for certain kinds of people—rich people and white people, or a combination of the two. Or that the environment is incredibly rules-based or that you have to get really dressed up, or that all the music was written by dead white people. None of those things are wholly true. It’s music for everybody, especially at the TSO. And it’s an environment that gives you something you can’t get anywhere else. You are experiencing something extraordinary that is being made by 100-plus people for you right now, and it will never be the same, ever again. How many experiences does one have like that?
Making the orchestra and classical music accessible is incredibly important to me. I didn’t come from a family where classical music was played. I did come from a family that loved music, which helped me see that music is music. I’m very focused on how we break down barriers so that not only do people have access to what we do, but they feel welcome and wanted in our space. One of the things we’re working on is a community access program, talking to local organizations to understand the barriers for their population coming into our hall. For some it’s transportation. For some it’s access and affordability. For some it’s as simple as not seeing advertising in their language. The goal is to come up with bespoke solutions for each community to ensure there’s a comfortable and sustainable path from where they are to Roy Thomson Hall.
Making the orchestra and classical music accessible is incredibly important to me. I didn’t come from a family where classical music was played. I did come from a family that loved music, which helped me see that music is music.— Mark Williams, CEO of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Ultimately, my dream is that the audience for any TSO concert looks like Toronto—has the diversity, the texture, the fun, the depth that this city has. Because when that happens, I’ll know this organization is serving everyone, and it’s of the city. And that always has to be the goal for a large arts organization. And relevance will continue to drive ticket sales and philanthropic giving, too—both of which are critical parts of our revenue base.
We started our season with a free open house, during which we welcomed more than 3,500 people, many of whom had never heard an orchestra before. I pushed for the free concert at the end of it to be reflective of not just who we are, but also how we intersect and connect with the city. So, the program included a couple of pieces of died-in-the-wool classical music from old Europeans, if you will. We had an exciting young Canadian pianist. And the orchestra played three pieces commissioned by the TSO: one from an Indigenous composer, one from a Persian-Canadian composer and one from a Mexican-Canadian composer. And all three of those people are based here in Toronto. There was this moment of seeing all these people from our community, and hearing this music that reflected them, played by our orchestra in our space, that was just absolutely perfect.
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