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

By John Terauds on April 18, 2012

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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