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.

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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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10 Responses to Toronto classical music caught between a boulder and a very hard place

  1. Well, I’m glad this is finally on paper. I’ve been nagging leaders of the musical world both at home and abroad for several years about the loss of the newspapers. Letters to publishers go unanswered. Isn’t it possible to work together like the literary or dance communities? Even in Canadian institutions music takes a back seat with limited representation. 680 news advertises their awards from the ‘music industry’ for more music news, yet not a word is mentioned for classical music. Why doesn’t 96.3 get the award? Who is the ‘music industry’? For some reason musicians do not stand up and get counted. Until they do I don’t see how we can change things.
    Frustrated, Ann

  2. violinhunter says:

    If 500 people attended and that was about 50% of the hall, then the hall seats 1000. Isn’t that too large for a chamber music concert? Perhaps your performance environment is different but I am guessing that even with the best of marketing efforts, a hall this size could not be filled for music of this type. Our concert venues for intimate concerts are never larger than a 600-seat auditorium or church. We typically get 400-500 patrons so the hall looks almost full. The last time we played the Messiah in a 2500-seat hall we got 1600 attendees. We never tried that again. I enjoyed reading this post. Best wishes.

  3. D. Schreiber says:

    I don’t think it’s a failure of publicity. Concerts of art songs just don’t draw. How many lieder could the average concert-goer name? Probably none. I enjoy chamber music and go to many concerts but always in halls much smaller than Koerner and at ticket prices much cheaper.

  4. IMHO the market for art song in Toronto is about 1000 people. Rot Thompson Hall seats about 2600. They used to bring in international singers for a vocal series. The problem was that half the audience expected opera arias; the other half wanted song. This is how I have derived my audience estimate.

    Two thirds of the Nash Ensemble concert was purely instrumental. The works were new to me but well worth hearing. Some audiences are uncomfortable with unfamiliar works (observe the problems which TSO has selling tickets to Beethoven’s Fourth).

    There was a time when CBC Radio placed more emphasis on less well-known music. Bob Kerr was a strong advocate for the unfamiliar. The TV people who run Radio II cancelled Disc Drive because it was too serious. I don’t know how the audience for lesser known works can be developed.

  5. Naomi Ridout says:

    I am sorry to see that the Nash had such a poor audience – they did much better than that in Ottawa last weekend at Chamberfest, which uses relentless publicity via traditional paid newspaper ads, and more innovative but cheaper methods such as telephone poles, shop windows, and flyers, delivered by an army of organized and extremely motivated volunteers. Without this huge and very time consuming volunteer work, audiences wouldn’t hear about it. Newspapers reach only the older generation. Facebook and Google ads are hit and miss. The CBC is next to useless and paid radio too expensive and un-focused. As an aside, I believe we are at the point where the government should deliver a coup de grace to Radio 2, because no private radio station will enter the fray while it still exists. It would be interesting to see if something akin to the classical stations of NPR could be organized here, perhaps on a TVO donation. (For the daughter of a composer whose works were all broadcast on the CBC, this opinion has been reached only reluctantly.)
    But really, the biggest problem for chamber music and art song is that we are not developing a young audience through private music lessons and elementary music programs. Appreciation of chamber music takes time to develop, and is difficult for an audience exposed only to today’s pop music. Opera and ballet are more accessible. It would be a huge shame to lose these sophisticated and wonderful forms of music, but without the return of good music appreciation for children, the audience for them will soon wither for good. We will have ever better musicians, and ever fewer listeners!

  6. [...] 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 …  [...]

  7. Margaret says:

    I could not agree more that potential-audiences for performing arts events are passive; they are inclined, but just not hearing about it through the channels that presenters expect them to find it, such as specialized publications for sectors the performing arts, or mass media outlets that cast the net so wide it is competing with far better funded campaigns designed to leave a lasting impression.

    Cultivating life-long devotees to the performing arts is hard work as Naomi points out above; it happens one person, one coffee shop, one neighbourhood at a time. It is also a continual process of deepening the audience’s engagement. Just find a way to get them to show up to one live performance, and let them realize for themselves that everything that is written and said about live performances pales in comparison to what it is like when you actually experience it yourself.

  8. Robert Missen says:

    John, you neglect to mention one relatively new form of communication that many of us boomers, and even older concertgoers, are quite conversant with. That is the e-mail. I think that e-blasts can be a very effective, targetted and inexpensive means of spreading the word about concerts of any kind.

    I share the thoughts of those commentators who contend that 500 is, in fact, a fine turnout for a chamber/artsong Toronto summer recital featuring distinguished but not big-name artists. I’m curious to know how the Gerald Finley concert, and some of the other festival concerts, sold.

  9. Tyler says:

    If you can’t get the kids to come to the venue, take the venue to the kids. I have never understood why chamber music has to be played in a concert hall (oh, acoustics and seating are better and all that, blah blah). Why not a gig or two at, say the Rivoli? People just might like it, they just don’t know it. Mix it up.

    I saw Final Fantasy open for the Arcade Fire about 8 years ago and suddenly I realized that classical music could work alongside contemporary pop/rock. FF probably wouldn’t be defined as classical by either the artist or the people reading this blog, but seeing Owen Pallett stand on stage with just his violin was a revelation. I sought out other similar artists and have opened my ears to more chamber music.

  10. Jordan says:

    My first reaction was the same as violinhunter’s: that Koerner Hall may just be too big a venue for chamber music (due both to the scale of the music and its relative popularity).