Sinfonia Toronto goes online and gets symphonic

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Even in the era of COVID-19, Sinfonia Toronto is thinking big. Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 are on the 2020-21 schedule.

This 13-piece chamber orchestra is also thinking small. Six of seven subscription concerts offer at least one string quartet. The season opener on Oct. 25 in Koerner Hall has two.

Of course these works are heard in arrangements.

“It’s necessary,” music director Nurhan Arman, who founded the orchestra in 1999said of the broad reach of Sinfonia repertoire. “We can’t keep playing the same Dvorak Serenade and Tchaikovsky Serenade season after season. You must offer something new to the audience and to the players.”

The need, he felt, was especially keen in the age of Internet dissemination. While there will be live audiences limited to the Ontario-dictated maximum of 50 – even in 1,135-seat Koerner Hall – all the Sinfonia concerts are offered as livestreams.

“It’s no longer just our Toronto audience,” Arman said. “Somebody from London or Cleveland or anywhere in the world could be looking at it, to see if the program is interesting.”

The resources are considerable. Many reductions for string quartet or quintet are out of copyright and readily available on the Internet. A few careful adjustments render these suitable for string-orchestra use.

Arman does some of the downsizing himself. The concert of Nov. 6 in the Glenn Gould Studio includes his arrangement of Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 2 (rebranded as Sinfonia “Kabardinian” after the Caucasian people who furnished some of the tunes). Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 (with Anya Alexeev as soloist) is heard in a version by the Polish composer Jakub Kowalewski.

The first concert couples Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet (a.k.a. the Chamber Symphony Op. 110a), in a version by the American double-bassist Lukas Drew, with Arman’s take on Beethoven’s Quartet Op. 74 “The Harp.” The combination of two “revolutionary” composers was thought to make for a strong start.

The basis of the Rachmaninoff performance on Feb. 14 (with Dmitri Levkovich as soloist) is a free-use version for piano, two violins, viola, cello and bass by an American composer, Jeremy Liu. As farfetched as a chamber reduction of this full-size favourite might seem, it has its advantages.

“The piano is always heard, there is no balance problem,” Arman says.

Perhaps the greatest curiosity of the season is a string version of Beethoven’s Seventh, undertaken in 1812 by the publisher Sigmund Anton Steiner. This is heard on Dec. 5 with Arman’s expansion of Beethoven’s Quartet Op. 18 No. 4.

The Sinfonia lineup does include some chamber-orchestra standards, including Mozart’s Divertimento K. 136 (on April 9) and Josef Suk’s Serenade (in the final concert of June 3). There are also contemporary works. Two are heard in world premieres: Resurrected Angel II by the Toronto’s Alice Ho (Jan. 22) and Polyphonic Miniatures by the Bulgarian-born Montreal composer Vania Angelova (June 3).

While Sinfonia Toronto does not program as much baroque music as its competitors, it will make room on April 9 for Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in A major BWV 1055 with Sona Barseghyan at the piano.

Mask-wearing protocols for the musicians are not yet confirmed. The semi-circular standing configuration of the orchestra with be a little expanded in the interests of distancing. “It will be a bigger halfmoon, but in terms of acoustics, there will not be a big difference,” Arman says.

The ensemble is forging ahead on Sept. 27 with a virtual gala. Mezzo-soprano and radio celebrity Julie Nesrallah is emcee. Accessible repertoire and theatrical elements are promised. Alas, virtual guests must supply their own refreshments.

“It would have been in person, of course, in normal times,” Arman says. “Everything is an experiment these days. We’ll see how it goes.”

The Sinfonia Toronto virtual gala takes place on Sunday Sept. 27 from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. The subscription season starts on Oct. 25. In-person tickets are sold out. Livestreams cost $15 each or $99 for the season. Go to www.sinfoniatoronto.com.

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Arthur Kaptainis has been a classical music critic since 1986. His articles have appeared in Classical Voice North America and La Scena Musicale as well as Musical Toronto. Arthur holds an MA in musicology from the University of Toronto. Since 2019, Arthur is co-editor of La Scena Musicale.

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