Valery Gergiev makes his Koerner Hall début with the Stradivarius Ensemble on Oct. 26.

Yesterday, the Royal Conservatory of Music unveiled 49 classical music and opera dates with its 80-plus concert 2012-13 season — its fourth since the opening of the Telus Centre and Toronto’s now-beloved Koerner Hall.

And those dates don’t include a long list of outside presenters who now present some or all of their art music concerts at Koerner Hall — people like Soundstreams, Esprit Orchestra and Tafelmusik.

Mervon Mehta, who heads up programming at the Telus Centre, has translated his own wide-ranging musical tastes into a fascinating mix of genres that comfortably sit side-by-side on Koerner Hall’s crowded calendar.

Mehta admits that, after stronger-than-anticipated opening and second seasons, this season’s box office is down about 10 per cent.

“This is the third new building I’ve opened,” he says. “Usually, you start with a bang the first season, as everyone wants to go see the a new hall. Then there’s a dip.”

Normally, the dip is in the second season. In Toronto, is has come during the third year, with the Telus Centre filling approximately 70 per cent of its seats, as opposed to 75 per cent during the previous two seasons.

Mehta quickly lays out three possible culprits: Too many elections (“it’s all doom and gloom about the economy”); eight cancellations, instead of the normal one or two, a factor completely out of a presenter’s control; and the lack of a grand opening fourish.

So the opening gala is back — with a twist.

Mervon and his performing arts division gang have named it BACHanalia, commemorating what would have been the 80th birthday of the Conservatory’s most famous alumnus, Glenn Gould.

The twist is that the Sept. 24 gala concert (moved up from Gould’s actual birthday because of Yom Kippur) features well-known pieces by J.S. Bach performed in unconventional ways.

Sylvain Blassel

Among the eyebrow-raising items on the programme are excerpts from the Goldberg Variations played on harp by young French virtuoso Sylvain Blassel, a flute sonata done with a harmonica, and bluegrass riffs on a solo violin partita.

“Who do you get to sit on our stage and pay homage to Glenn?” says Mehta by way of explanation. Since Gould’s ghost will already be on stage, thanks to one of Zenph Studios’ eerie player-piano recreations, the programmer thought it best to provoke and entertain rather than try to live up to a legend.

“These will be different ways of listening to — and playing — Bach. I think this is something Gould would have enjoyed,” adds Mehta. In its eclecticism, the opening gala also serves as a symbol of the Telus Centre’s broader mandate to reach beyond traditional forms.

The Gould/Bach theme actually begins the day before, on the 24th, as Conservatory teacher and ARC Ensemble member David Louie presents an all-Bach programme centred around the harpsichord, at Mazzoleni Hall. That weekend, University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music will host an all-weekend Gould symposium (details are not yet available).

People who can’t make it to the opening gala will be able to hear Blassel play Bach on the harp again the following Saturday, as the Telus Centre rejoins Nuit Blanche festivities this year.

The rest of the season is a rich feast of music.

The most prominent newcomer is Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, who makes his Koerner Hall début with the Stradivarius Ensemble, made up of members of his Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra in St. Petersburg. That happens on Oct. 26.

Mehta says Gergiev has wanted to perform in Koerner Hall ever since visiting the space during construction, several years ago. It simply took this long to coordinate the maestro’s schedule with the Koerner Hall calendar.

Toronto is the first stop on a North American tour by Gergiev and the Stradivarius Ensemble. Mehta says the conductor asked for extra rehearsal time here, to help get the group polished. This, in turn, will give Conservatory students a rare opportunity to see the elusive maestro in action.

This is part of a larger strategy at the school to increase educational contact between high-profile visitors and students.

Yip Wing-sie

There are two other notable ensemble débuts before the end of this year: the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, with a largely 20th century Russian programme, under conductor Yip Wing-sie, on Oct. 4; and the Collegium Vocale Gent, which will present Bach’s Christmas Oratorio with conductor Philippe Herreweghe on Dec. 14.

There are too many other highlights to mention. Two Canadian ones of note are the hometown premiere of Brian Current’s opera Airline Icarus, in concert form, on Nov. 25, and a solo recital of all two dozen Op. 10 and Op. 25 Etudes by Frédéric Chopin by 17-year-old pianist Jan Lisiecki, on March 3. (Lisiecki will be recording the Etudes for his next Deutsche Grammophon disc at Koerner Hall, in January.)

“It’s amazing,” says Mehta, shaking his head. “This is year four, and it still feels like we just opened.”

For all the details of the 2012-13 season at the Telus Centre, click here.

And here is a bit of Sylvain Blassel’s take on the Golberg Variations:

John Terauds

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4 Responses to Valery Gergiev début one of many 2012-13 season highlights at Royal Conservatory

  1. Robert Missen says:

    extremely disappointed with the vocal series. there is only one solo vocal event, and that features marie-josee lord, who is another measha-lite popsy/crossover soprano. where are the serious recitalists? i thought that koerner hall would pick up the slack attendant to the demise of the tohomson hall vocal series. our city deserves far better.

    • John Terauds John Terauds says:

      Robert, I didn’t speak to Mervon about vocal soloists, but some of the recitals I’ve attended at Koerner Hall this season have not been that well attended. For example, Ian Bostridge should have sold out the place twice over, but didn’t. If I were programming, I’d be thinking twice about the serious vocal recital if the audience in my city weren’t showing any enthusiasm for them.

  2. Mike Z. Fan says:

    I totally agree with Robert Missen…I saw the fantastic Hélène Grimaud two years ago and the hall was full. With the reputation and integrity of the RCM, I’m very dissapointed to see the lack of enthusiasm and support for more renowned classical musicians and especially singers.

    While I’m not able to go to every performance I’d like to because I’m from out of town, I would at least like the option because I will make the time and effort to go if I really want to see something – and there are many who would like to take my place. Shying away from genuine classical music is what kills it: classical music isn’t dying and it never will, but without exposing people to the great artists of the world, how can we expect to reach a broader audience? Popularity does not equal high art.

  3. Mervon Mehta says:

    Dear Robert and Mike:

    Thanks for your comments.
    I wish we could do more vocal recitals but our audience has clearly told us that there is little interest. As John mentioned Ian Bostridge was 1/2 full, as was Philippe Jarousky. Susan Graham fared better but was far from a sell out. We have Dawn Upshaw this weekend singing an extraordinary program but tickets have been a struggle. I assume that you are both attending.

    I urge you to look at our entire season. As John has noted in his post 49 of our 80 concerts are classical ones including some major names and some new artists that we will introduce to Toronto audiences. I hardly think this represents a ‘shying away from genuine classical music”.

    In a perfect world we would book great artists without regard for their box office potential. Sadly none of us live in that world.

    I hope to see you both at many concerts.