Douglas McNabney, Toronto Summer Music Festival and Academy
by Joseph So
Exactly a year ago, Toronto-born, Montreal-based violist Douglas McNabney and I sat down for a chat about the 2011 Toronto Summer Music Festival season, his first at the helm. Affable, articulate, and smart, McNabney fielded questions with consummate ease, a smile hardly ever leaving his face during the hour-long interview. But under that boyish exterior is a no-nonsense chief executive, determined to fill the shoes of the departed Agnes Grossmann. I called him “a man on a mission” in the article.
Now, a year later, it’s time to sit down for another chat, to reflect on last season and look ahead to the three weeks of music coming up. The busy guy that he is, we could only manage a phone interview this time around:
LSM: Could it possibly have been a year already since we talked?
DM: (laughs) I think it feels like more than a year! It’s unbelievable how time just fly by…
LSM: Before we talk about this new season, could you say a few words and reflect on last season, your first at TSMF? How did it go?
DM: It’s been quite a year. We’ve had tremendous success and lots of interest from the public. Ticket sales went up 24% We finished in the black….we managed to even pay back our accumulated deficit. The financial situation consolidated last year and we had artistic success. I must say I’ve been incredibly pleased by the efforts of everybody – the Board, our office staff, the new artistic and administrative directors. Everybody put in a lot of time and effort. The results were there at the end of the day and it was very satisfying.
LSM: TSMF must have been alone being in the black. Look at Black Creek Music Festival last summer – a high profile, big budget event that stole a bit of thunder from TSMF. Look at them now…they are gone!
DM: Well, perhaps it’s a sign of the times when a small organization like us with precise goal and aims, pursuing excellence in terms of what we offer to our public and to our students and because we are small, we are nimble and agile and can react to circumstances, rather than relying on large public campaigns doing everything big. For many people, it’s obvious the way Black Creek exploded on the scene with such huge resources thrown behind marketing, is maybe not the way to build something. TSMF has real thought behind why we’re doing things, to do something meaningful and to do it well, serving the public.
LSM: Last year, you focused on Chamber Music and Art of the Song, innovations like Mentors and Fellows program. What do you feel was the biggest successes last year?
DM: Unquestionably in many people’s minds it would be the re-orientation of the Academy part of Toronto Summer Music. It focuses on a small, high level training for some of the really great young artists in the program. Why would these young musicians come to downtown Toronto in the summer when most would go to the country, to Ravinia and Banff and Tanglewood like everyone else? What we can offer in downtown Toronto in the summer is something that those other places cannot offer – and that is a real platform for them to play for the public in a very visible, spotlighted kind of way, and it’s worked out really well. We were hoping in four or five years we’d build a reputation for this style of academy, but it actually worked well in its first year. Young artists came and played with their mentors, it was a huge success…
LSM: Where did you get the idea of the “fellows and mentors” program?
DM: It was at Marlboro… it’s also something I’ve started at Domaine Forget; I’ve also started something similar with the National Youth Orchestra. So this was my third in the same style, we offer young artists the opportunity to play with the great artists on stage in downtown Toronto. It’s the kind of experience the young artists need as careers are built on experience. The more opportunities for young artists to perform, the more equipped they’ll be to make their own way in their careers.
LSM: Can I get you to comment a little bit on a personal level? I understand you live in Montreal, so how does it feel to spend several months in Toronto, how does the long distance commuting worked out for you?
DM: (laughs) Porter Airlines! I feel like I could do a commercial for Porter Airlines…they are such a great company and the commute is very easy. On a personal level, I am thrilled to be back in Toronto again. I was born in Toronto. Even though my home is in Montreal and my day job is at McGill University, I feel that coming to contribute to the musical life of Toronto in the summer is deeply satisfying…it’s my second year now and it’s still a thrill.
LSM: As festivals go TSMF seems relatively short…
DM: The Festival is three weeks. A true festival, to create that kind of stir and excitement, has to be concentrated. When you look at other festivals, like Luminato or TIFF, it’s 12 days at the most, so you can get a sustained public and media interest. A longer period like four to six weeks in downtown Toronto is difficult. We’re moving to a more concentrated period. In the past we had concerts every other day, now we have concerts every day, so we can actually look to the future of inviting public from out of town to come to visit toronto, stay for three or four days to attend events.
LSM: Let’s move on to this year’s festival. Last year there was a high profile cancellation. Is this year’s festival going smoothly so far? no cancellations?
DM: Singers’ voices are at the mercy of their health, and one has to be ready for this sort of thing. But everything is looking good at this stage. I am so excited to welcome back Gerald Finley to Canada, to give a song recital and he’s going to Ravinia and Ottawa as well. We also have his manager Alison Pybus coming – she’s going to give a talk to the young artists. We have special classes for her to talk about what one can expect to leave school, how to get auditions, look for an agent, getting a manager, what should the singers expect and what they should be prepared to do themselves. There are eight young singers and 4 pianists in our program here. We also have Christopher Newton who is coming for two sessions this year. He was spectacular in his workshop presentations on analysis of the song texts last year. Sanford Sylvain will come to give a couple of masterclasses as well. Craig Rutenberg – fabulous teacher and pianist, a wonderful musician, so complete in every way. The singers will get to work with these people. It’s going to be phenomenal!
LSM: Can you say something about the Outreach concerts? Is it something new?
DM: No, we did it last year. It serves two purposes – occasions for young artists to perform, and it also serves to get our name out, and return to the community. There are so many people who can’t afford to come down to Koerner Hall, financially or time-wise. We went to North York Public Library all three weeks last year and the first week a hundred people came, and then a hundred thirty, the last week we had a hundred fifty. People at the Library were thrilled. It was a real audience, not just people walking through. By the third week, they were coming to hear a real concert. The audience had elderly people and people with young children, so going to Koerner Hall may not be possible or something they would normally do..They were very happy to hear the concerts and it was very satisfying for the students also, to play for this audience who were happy to hear this great music.
LSM: You’ve built a lot of good will with this kind of concerts…
DM: It’s very necessary. We build the audience too, and who knows, out of these occasions, people talk and maybe some people will eventually come downtown to attend a concert. We are continuing this year with North York…
LSM: Have you thought of videotaping these young artists concerts and put on Youtube? Other organizations do it for promotion…
DM: That’s a very interesting idea. I’ll have to mention it. We are a small organization and we have a shortage of staff to get people involved on all kinds of level. Videotaping will have to be done on a level that reflect the quality of the festival. It would be a bit of an investment but an excellent one…
LSM: Last year it was the Great Masters, and this year you mentioned that it’ll be Music of the Nations. Is that what you’re doing this year?
DM: Absolutely, although we are not calling it the Music of the Nations, as it could be mis-interpreted. But this is our programming. We have the Borodin Quartet in a Russian program, the Nash Ensemble doing an English program. and the next night doing a French program. We have the Zukerman Chamber Players doing Shostakovich. We also have Vienna Piano Trio doing Brahms and Schumann as opposed to the Haydn and Beethoven they did last year. We really are branching out. It’s an interesting period in (European) history as the great Imperial powers were starting to break down in the 19th century. The new borders were re-defined along linguistic and cultural lines. This aspect of national identities, with its folk elements, is reflected in the music.
LSM: What do you hope that the audience will take away from this year’s Festival?
DM: By putting together this program, I hope to encourage people to think about music in its larger context. That’s just so interesting and it makes so much sense! When you go to an art gallery, you see trends and cultural ideas that are in all kinds of artistic genres, so I hope on some level there’s an education going on, to encourage people to consider things in a broader context, and to go beneath the surface, to reflect upon the music they are hearing at that moment. I hope they also have an incredible amount of fun hearing live music! This is something that I believe so deeply myself – listening to recordings in your living room is fine, but it never can replace that immediate contact between the artist and the audience. So I hope they’ll come away saying “wow, what a great concert!”