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Toronto classical music caught between a boulder and a very hard place

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Five members of England’s lauded Nash Ensemble and one of Canada’s finest lyric tenors performing lush and dramatically evocative tonal music by two composers with comfortable pews in the classical canon wasn’t enough to fill more than half of Koerner Hall last night.

This is scary, because the seventh annual Toronto Summer Music Festival may be the best best yet.

Artistic director Douglas McNabney came up with a tight musical agenda guaranteed to be an easy sell, focused on the great works of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The invited artists have been paragons of fine musicianship. There have been free outreach concerts, many outside the downtown core throughout the festival. There are pre-concert chats and lectures.

Even though chamber music and art song have never been the bread-and-butter of a classical music season anywhere in the world, in a metropolitan area of more than 5 million people, this kind of programming should nevertheless be a risk-free proposition.

Not anymore.

The main problem is not artistic direction, the lack of a potential audience, the cost of a ticket or physical impediments to making it to a favourite programme. It is with letting people know that the music is happening.

It’s easy for those of us who are deeply engaged in the performance ecosystem to forget that the bulk of any audience is passive. Most people do not actively scour their environment for news of the latest concert or opera production. They come because someone suggests it, or they see or hear something that triggers a happy memory, or because they’ve had a subscription since Lester Pearson was Prime Minister and, well, you just don’t want to waste a good ticket, right?

Newspaper and radio, the two media that built and sustained this process of poking and triggering and then continued the post-concert experience by offering commentary and criticism, are faint grey smudges of their former selves.

Toronto’s three paid dailies and two free tabloids over the course of three weeks have devoted zero features, zero interviews and one review to Toronto Summer Music. The hollowed shell that is CBC Radio 2 couldn’t participate. Classical 96 FM, to its credit, had McNabney and some festival guests in for on-air interviews. But that’s been it.

The bulk of Toronto’s bloggers are interested in opera, not the discreet charms of musical chambers. So the online realm has been relatively quiet, too.

The young generation of classical musicians and their fans let each other know about what’s going on through Facebook and send out reminders via Twitter. But that’s still a small proportion of the performing world. In this transitional time, most professional artists don’t feel they have the time to muck about on social media when there’s real work to do, and most middle-aged and older audience members don’t consider blogs, Facebook posts and tweets to be a credible part of the broader cycle of expectation, experience and conversation that is an evening of music or opera.

McNabney welcomed the audience last night at Koerner Hall by asking how many people had Twitter accounts. Perhaps 50 hands went up among the 500 or so filled seats. McNabney then asked how many people had Facebook accounts and I was shocked to see that the raised arms represented less than half the audience.

Right now, the conversation — the broader pre- and post-concert experience — is bypassing the core audience, which was primed by radio and newspapers. These bewildered people are wondering what’s going on. They still offer potential for engagement and support.

“Well, I guess we’re just going to have to do everything we can privately,” said a prominent arts patron to me last night after I explained the situation.

Exactly. It’s more work. It takes more money and time. And it’s a plain-old pain in the ass to have one more item to add to the arts-loving-and-supporting to-do list.

But there really is no alternative.


To soothe the pain, here is the opening section of Claude Debussy’s Cello Sonata, likely to be played with exceptional elegance tonight at Walter Hall by the Nash Ensemble’s Paul Watkins and Ian Brown. (Check out the full programme here):

John Terauds

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