Douglas McNabney on Toronto Summer Music Festival 2015: The New World

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Toronto Summer Music Festival 2015: The New World (Preview)
By Joseph So on May 11, 2015
Douglas McNabney of TSMF talks about the Art of Programming this year’s Festival. Photo: Bo Huang

For many Torontonians, the pleasure of our all-too-brief summer revolves around catching the Boys of Summer at the Rogers Centre, or dining al fresco in the backyard without having to don a sweater, or better yet, spending some quality time at the cottage. But if you are a classical music lover, you are out of luck – or at least it used to be that way, as our season ends in late June and only slowly comes back to life in mid September. To get your fix, it means going outside the GTA to Festivals the likes of Elora, Parry Sound or Westben, or venture Stateside to Ravinia or Tanglewood and beyond.

Thankfully, summer in Toronto is no longer the musical wasteland it used to be. Though the 2011 Black Creek Festival turned out to be a one-season-wonder, the well established Luminato Festival remains strong, with a glitzy, cutting edge lineup albeit a little short on classical programming. For that, we can turn to the Toronto Summer Music Festival, now celebrating its 10th season. The three-week TSMF (together with the four-week Academy) happens to coincide with the Pan Am Games to take place in town this July, so what better festival theme than the Music of the Americas?

Officially called The New World, it pays homage to the Pan Am Games through exploring the diverse genres of American music, from Gershwin and Bernstein to Jazz, Tango and Broadway. It opens on July 16 at Koerner Hall featuring soprano Measha Brueggergosman in selections from the quintessential American opera, Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, as well as the iconic Rhapsody in Blue and Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Two concerts of the Festival are billed as part of Panamania, the arts and culture celebrations that’s part of the Pan Am Games – the Youth Orchestra of Americas/ Orchestra de la Francophonie on July 22nd, and Panamania Lula Big Band on July 22nd. Several star soloists in the traditional classical music world are coming, including top-notch pianists Garrick Ohlsson and Ingrid Fliter.

Personally speaking, I’m excited by the appearance of Finnish diva Karita Mattila in recital, and the other great Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski coming as a mentor in the Art of the Song program. That being said, this year’s Festival is a bit of a departure, given the number of concerts that die-hard TSMF fans may find to be outside their comfort zone. I was intrigued to hear Artistic Director Douglas McNabney’s take on this year’s unusual programming in our interview.

Since assuming the TSMF leadership five years ago, McNabney has guided the organization through a remarkable period of growth and maturity. Last season alone saw a 38% increase in ticket sales, a 15% increase in attendance for a total of 11,500 audience members who attended performances given by 80 headlining artists and 35 emerging musicians. In the five seasons since he took over, attendance has gone up an impressive 49%. And most impressive of all, TSMF is now in the black. “A board member said to me: ‘if TSMF were a publicly traded company, I can’t afford your stock!’” quips McNabney between sips of Perrier, when we met for this year’s interview at the Green Beanery, a coffee shop at Bathurst and Bloor in the heart of the city.

A native of Toronto, violist McNabney is a renowned chamber musician, arts administrator, and teacher. He was at the helm of the Domaine Forget Music Festival and Academy for five seasons, as well as having presided over the Haydn 2009 project at the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal. An associate professor of strings at McGill’s Schulich School of Music, McNabney has demonstrated his expertise both as a musician and a CEO. Typically, his pre-Festival whirlwind visits to Toronto are jam-packed with meetings, interviews and social functions. So it wasn’t easy to nail him down for an interview, and uncharacteristically he was slightly late for our appointment. But no matter how hectic a schedule, Professor McNabney is as ever dapper and unflappable, unfailingly friendly, articulate, smart, media-savvy and above all highly persuasive, all the right attributes as head honcho for a burgeoning organization like TSMF:

JS: Hard to believe but this is the fifth year we’ve been doing this TSMF preview. The one difference is that this year the article will appear in Musical Toronto rather than La Scena Musicale. Since TSMF is a Toronto event, it seems appropriate…

DM: We’ve come to the realization that traditional print media no longer serves our musical community. Our community is so small (compared to pop music) that I’m convinced that (the internet) is the best way to reach our target audience.

JS: Let’s have a little recap of last season. How did things go last year?

DM: Last year was superb, with big increases in ticket sales and attendance, and we’re in the black. And we did all this with only 9% of our revenues coming from the three levels of government. Thirty percent came from ticket sales, 11% from corporations, 7% from foundations, and gifts from individuals made up 43%. We won a prize (the Mo Davies Small Organization for Excellence in Fundraising Award) last year from the Association of Fundraising Professionals, a huge organization made up of fundraisers from universities and hospitals. This was the first time they’ve given an award to an arts organization.

JS: That’s very impressive – you’re rightly proud. Now, let’s talk a little about this year’s theme, Music of the Americas…

DM: We’re doing Music of the Americas in honour of the Pan Am Games coming to Toronto. When we’re talking about Music in the Americas, we’re talking about many popular traditions of American music. We’ve tended to put music into three separate categories – classical or ‘high art’ music, popular or commercial music, and the oral or folk tradition. In Music of the Americas, they all come into play with each other. For example, Gershwin in the classical tradition incorporates elements of jazz; the Beatles brings in a string quartet in Eleanor Rigby, and so on. If we talk about American popular music in the operatic tradition, it’s musical theatre. This is the typical musical theatre genre for America. I think for too long and too often it’s been dismissed as “low brow.”

JS: Talking about musical theatre – I noticed you are doing Broadway in TSMF…

DM: We are doing The Last Five Years, with music by Jason Robert Brown. It has just been made into a film that premiered at TIFF last September and released this February. It’s a very clever piece: A couple on stage; they meet, fall in love, and they break up, all in the course of five years. The story is told from the man’s point of view chronologically, and also from the woman’s point of view, except in reverse chronology. The only time they sing together is at the wedding, in the middle. As the couple we have Aaron Sheppard who’s the new tenor (in the COC Ensemble) and his girlfriend, the very fine soprano Vanessa Oude-Reimerink. They personify the new generation of singers today – they do opera and musical theatre, because many young singers realize that’s where the future is. Even Glimmerglass does Annie Get Your Gun…

JS: I’ve to confess that when I was growing up and immersed in classical music, I was taught that musical theatre was not on the same level as the “true” classical genres. However I‘ve come to appreciate it more…

DM: I’m hoping I can bring in my traditional audience, and that they would consider musical theatre from a more serious point of view and not to dismiss it as fluff. A lot of operas and operettas in the 18th and 19th century, even Mozart and Singspiel, was musical theatre of their time. I have many colleagues who live their professional lives with one particular repertoire, but when they go home at night, they listen to jazz, and to the occasional rock band. I’ll give you a good example – Christopher O’Riley, fantastic pianist! He did his own transcription of Radiohead. He personifies the new generation of musicians who don’t live in silos. This is a necessary thing and a good thing. I’m happy to have an occasion to challenge our audience, not necessarily to change their minds, but to help open their minds to the idea that there are aesthetics involved in these other genres. They are not the same but equally valid. The very idea we grew up with in the 20th century that there are three separate categories of music – classical or “high art” music, pop or commercial music, and the oral or folk tradition, in actual fact they do cross over a lot. In my school, at McGill, there are more musicologists in popular music than in traditional repertoire. It’s interesting to look at the sociological phenomenon of why something becomes popular. It’s just another illustration of how our culture now is obliged to consider popular music and more commercial drama on a serious level.

JS: When you use such a broad brush in designing your program this year, how do you decide what to feature and what to leave out?

DM: Well, that’s the challenge, to find a way to present an interesting program but it would not be exhaustive. We’re also covering the classics like Dvorak, he’s enormously influential given his association with America. We’re also doing the European composers who came to the New World fleeing persecution. We have Korngold, Hindemith, Schoenberg and others. We also have the standard repertoire, the six Bartok string quartets for example. Our mentors and fellows concerts on Saturdays weren’t properly promoted before…they will be this year. The shuffle concerts will be mostly jazz, focusing on fun music-making. The plan is to do some interesting concerts at the very highest level, with great musicians like cellist Antonio Lysy and the Borromeo String Quartet in the Tango concert, not compromising the artistic standards in any way. I hope people will begin to say, hey look at this! When Piazolla was writing tangos, this was his art form, his way of expression. His aesthetic was as equally valid as Gershwin’s or Copland’s or Ive’s. Once you start moving across these categories, you realize it’s all great music.


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Joseph K. So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, but his first love is music, which he studied as an undergraduate student at the State University of New York. Since seeing his first live opera – La Gioconda with Renata Tebaldi at the Met in 1967, the singing voice became his lifelong favourite instrument. In addition to his longtime contributions to La Scena Musicale and The Music Scene, he is Associate Editor of Opera Canada and a frequent contributor to Musical Toronto.

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