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Toronto Symphony Orchestra's New Creations festival makes new music easy to avoid

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Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös (Klaus Rudolph photo)

Toronto Symphony Orchestra music director Peter Oundjian has made it easy for symphony lovers to deal with new music, by segregating much of it into a three-concert New Creations festival. People with an aversion to the experimental can simply stay away, while those with a nose for something newer can bask in a fleeting rainbow of possibilities.

On the eve of the TSO’s eighth annual New Creations festival — one with the most challenging content so far — I think it’s fair to ask if this is a good thing.

This year’s special guest is Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös, very much a child of the Mid-century Modern aesthetic of tearing the structure of organized sound apart before putting it back together again.

Eötvös, whose intense symphonic explorations are on each of the three programmes, will also act as conductor for most of the pieces, with Oundjian serving as host and occasional guest on the podium.

I had a chance to sit down yesterday with Eötvös, who has used his combined skills as a composer and conductor to be a particularly active apostle of new music in Europe’s capital cities. I certainly didn’t ask him to comment on the New Creations festival itself, but what he said in the course of our conversation led me to wonder if a short festival is the way to build audiences for the art music of today.

In 1991, the composer founded the International Eötvös Institute and Foundation. Every year, the Institute brings together young composers and conductors so that they can create new music together in a full-immersion environment.

“They often sleep in the same room,” said Eötvös. “Working in this kind of environment helps them to understand each other’s needs and improve their skills. It also fosters professional relationships and friendships that will last for the rest of their lives.”

The working partners become each other’s biggest fans, helping propagate programming and performance suggestions around the world, much in the way that seed plants cast their offspring to the winds. (The composer’s own friendship in the 1970s with Canadian Claude Vivier, also being featured in New Creations this year, is a case in point.)

I asked Eötvös if there is a similar method to building audiences for new music. His reply? Nothing beats persistence and engagement.

As an illustration, Eötvös used his experience in Paris with the Ensemble Intercontemporain in the 1980s.

“They had six animateurs, who would go out and talk to people, in schools and before concerts,” he explained. “When we first started, we would get audiences of 150 to 200 people. That was it. But we kept doing it, and gradually, year by year, the audience grew.”

For Eötvös, the best examples of persistence are the Berlin and Vienna philharmonics. “Under Karajan, the Berlin Philharmonic never performed new music, but then they started, under Claudio Abbado. He insisted. Now they have Simon Rattle and new music all the time,” he said.

“Even the conservative Vienna Philharmonic programs new music now,” he added. “They have just commissioned a cantata from me. Imagine — a cantata, from the Vienna Philharmonic!”

Eötvös laughed as he recalled a little trick one orchestra he was involved with pulled on its audience. Like many organizations, it had programmed the new work for the start of the concert. “But they did a switch at the last minute,” Eötvös smiled. “They played the new piece second, so all the latecomers would have to listen to it.”

Like many other people I’ve spoken to over the years, Eötvös brought up the popularity of modern visual art versus modern art music. “Just go into MoMa in New York, and it’s always full of people,” he exclaimed. His thinks this is because people have become used to looking at abstract visual art.

Which brings me back to the TSO, which occasionally programs new or newer works as concert openers, but has largely concentrated its new music efforts on the mini festival. By avoiding three concerts in March, potential or regular patrons can avoid being confronted with the unfamiliar or the uncomfortable.

I guess it all comes down to how concert presenters see themselves: Purveyors of the fine and familiar, or agents provocateurs. It is the way visual artists see themselves, no?

(I will have more on the contents of this year’s New Creations festival later.)

John Terauds

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