The financial fortunes of major contemporary arts institutions are like phases of the moon, constantly waxing and waning. These days, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is somewhat on the wane. With capacity at its concerts last season below 80 per cent, ticket revenue down 10 per cent or so (although fundraising is up), the TSO feels like an organization that needs a shot in the arm to move it out of its current trajectory.
It's possible the TSO's 2014-15 season, announced Thursday, may be the beginning of that turnaround.
The problem in recent years has not been the quality of the orchestra – it keeps getting better and better. If there is an identifiable lack, it's been the imaginative brio behind the orchestra's programming. Too many warhorses, not enough originality in presentation, too much of the same old, same old – even when it's beautifully offered.
To be fair, the TSO presents between 40 and 50 different concert programs over a season (more than 100 performing occasions in all), so not everything can be original. But along with the old standbys of Rachmaninoff symphonies and Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overtures, the 2014-15 season will also offer some tasty, unfamiliar treats.
In February, the orchestra will be presenting a two week Piano Extravaganza hosted/curated by famed pianist Emanuel Ax (which will spill over to the Royal Conservatory's Koerner Hall as well). Over eight concerts (and assorted free events), we will see Ax and Canadian wunderkind Jan Lisiecki perform a Mozart double concerto, for instance. Or Ax and Stewart Goodyear and Anagnoson & Kinton performing the piano originals of famous pieces eventually transcribed for orchestra, along with the orchestral versions – such as Brahms's Haydn Variations and Ravel's La Valse. Clever, interesting, different.
The orchestra's annual Mozart@whenever Festival will be given a new twist, being guest curated by Les Violons du Roy's Bernard Labadie. We'll be hearing fragments of pieces Mozart wrote over his short life but long career. We'll hear a concert of works by Leopold Mozart and Peter Schickele. We'll hear Mozart's A Musical Joke – a fresh stroll over familiar territory. The annual New Creations Festival has a true contemporary star at its heart – British composer George Benjamin, bringing his acclaimed chamber opera Written on Skin with him, starring famed Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan (who will be performing at each New Creations concert). There will be a series of five concerts featuring a local favourite visitor, conductor Thomas Dausgaard, along with Jan Lisiecki again, pairing the music of Danish composer Carl Nielsen with that of Beethoven and Mozart. Lisiecki will play the final three Beethoven concertos as part of the series.
These are just the kind of concerts that pull a night at the symphony out of the ordinary and into the charmed circle of "events."
And there are other highlights in the TSO season. The orchestra will embark on its first European tour in a decade, to several summer festivals this August. It's getting a new Steinway piano (a bigger deal for an orchestra than you might suspect). Canadian soloists from Ben Heppner to Isabel Bayrakdarian will be appearing with the orchestra (Heppner in Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, Bayrakdarian in an Armenian program). Andrew Davis will present a three-concert series celebrating his 40th consecutive year on a TSO stage. Superstar pianist Valentina Lisitsa (probably the first classical artist to make her reputation, Bieber-style, on YouTube) will be playing Rachmaninoff. Joshua Bell will highlight the opening gala. The score to Fantasia will be played live as the movie is shown in HD.
Will all this be enough to change the phases of the artistic moon for the TSO and move it back to the positive? Hard to say. But this much is clear. In today's competitive, frenzied hunt for the entertainment consumer's dollar, it's not enough to create fine music. You have to create buzz.