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Performing Arts

A perfect storm at the TSO

After a flurry of still-mysterious resignations last December set Toronto's century-old orchestra adrift, it's hoisting the sails and charting a new course

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, led by Peter Oundjian, performs Life of Pi.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra opened its 2017-18 season with Life of Pi, a new orchestral suite by Canadian composer Mychael Danna, adapted from his own film score. Directed by Ang Lee, the film is a survival story about a boy adrift in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger – based, of course, on the novel by Yann Martel, another Canadian. The program – part of the TSO's Canada 150 project – was more than a world premiere; it was a statement: the beginning of a season-long send-off for the man at the podium, the orchestra's long-time music director Peter Oundjian.

By all accounts, it was a glorious evening. But what the audience might not have been aware of was that the onstage narrative – of the struggle for survival in unpredictable circumstances – is on-theme for the TSO; there's been a fair bit of lifeboat drama playing out offstage.

Founded in 1922, the TSO's historic and contemporary significance extends beyond Toronto; it is one of Canada's leading orchestras. But the venerable cultural institution heads toward its centennial facing major challenges. In addition to the well-documented universal classical-music-world problem of aging audiences and unsettled economic conditions, the TSO is facing its own significant problems.

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In November, the TSO will have its Annual General Meeting. It will be a time to reflect on how the symphony is coping financially and organizationally after a period of extreme internal transition, with a series of departures and vacancies and a need for top-level recruitment against that backdrop.

Its ambitious chief executive and president Jeff Melanson left in 2016 – an early, and very high profile, resignation. The company is now being run by an interim CEO, Gary Hanson – who only spends part of his time in Toronto – at the same time Oundjian is preparing to step down from the podium after this season – to be replaced by another temp, an interim artistic director.

There are also vacancies in several top administrative positions, including vice-president, development, which has gone unfilled for months. The TSO's former innovation director has decamped for Vancouver. And its vice-president, marketing, has submitted his resignation and will leave this month. This is in addition to nearly half the board, including the chair, who left late last year, most of them in a flurry of resignations last December.

This situation would be challenging for even the most financially robust organization, and that the TSO is not. Even if it has balanced the books in recent years, the TSO is carrying an accumulated deficit of $6.9-million, much of it accrued in the past decade, according to last year's audited financial statements.

Melanson's ambitions for the organization put a strain on the organization's already tender financial health; in the two seasons comprising his tenure (he left about three-quarters through the second), total expenses at the orchestra increased by almost one-third.

Hanson hints at positive financial news for the past fiscal during an interview on Sept. 26 – his one-year anniversary at the TSO and a year to the date when he will leave the organization, unless his permanent successor is in place earlier. At that point, Sir Andrew Davis will begin his temporary tenure as interim music director.

With so much in flux, one might wonder about stability at the organization. On the other hand, Davis's tenure could provide the symphony with a cushion of time during which it can be deliberative – not scrambling – in its choice of its next music director – and that person will be allowed to arrive at a time of stability, rather than to an organizational mess.

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"Does this period of transition represent instability?" Hanson says, echoing my question. "It actually represents real stability. It provides real stability."

What happened

Toronto Symphony Orchestra interim CEO Gary Hanson retired from the Cleveland Orchestra, considered one of the world’s best, at the end of 2015, after 28 years with the organization.

If the TSO is a boat adrift, Hanson is charged with figuring out how to get it to dry land and pacify that tiger.

Born and raised in Toronto, Hanson retired from the Cleveland Orchestra, considered one of the world's best, at the end of 2015, after 28 years with the organization, 12 as executive director. The orchestra thrived under his leadership; not the least of his accomplishments was weathering the 2008 recession.

Retirement didn't stick. He served as interim president of the Cleveland Institute of Music, and then the problems brewing back home in Toronto came to his attention.

Melanson's troubles and subsequent departure were headline-grabbing. In 2016, Melanson's estranged wife, Eleanor McCain, requested annulment in an explosive legal document. Her filing accused her husband of many misdeeds – both personal and professional, and he ultimately resigned.

Scrambling to fill the breach with only three months left in the fiscal year, Sonia Baxendale, a TSO board member and former president, CIBC Retail Markets, left the board to become interim CEO. Together with board chair Richard Phillips – another former banker – they concocted a plan that would return the organization to fiscal health. The TSO reported a surplus in fiscal 2015-16, avoiding a deficit with some skillful accounting that saw the Toronto Symphony Foundation double its normal contribution to the symphony's coffers.

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Baxendale and Phillips's plan was to ultimately hire a permanent CEO, but a transitional option was presented in the form of Gary Hanson, who they signed on for a two-year contract.

Hanson's track record with the Cleveland Orchestra was "superb," according to a statement from Phillips when Hanson was hired. And – bonus – Hanson was born and raised in Toronto; his first exposure to classical music was hearing members of the TSO play at his Etobicoke elementary school. "I'm in the symphony business because of the Toronto symphony," he tells The Globe and Mail. He splits his time between the TSO's offices and his home office in Cleveland.

"I think Gary Hanson is the greatest person to have stepped into these shoes," says Bramwell Tovey, music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

"I feel very positively about the TSO right now," Tovey adds, in an interview this week. "I think they've done everything they can to put their own house in order."

At the time of last year's AGM, things appeared to be stabilizing. In its annual report, released last November, the TSO boasted an "unprecedented" degree of deficit reduction and some impressive attendance figures, suggesting renewed audience engagement. "It's a very exciting time at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra," wrote Baxendale, who had returned to the board. Meanwhile, in a board vote, Phillips's term was extended by a year, giving him about another two years in the position.

But just as the ship righted, it seemed to take on water again. In a shocker, eight members of the board resigned in the weeks following the AGM; six of them – including Phillips, Baxendale and all but one of the other members of the executive committee – within a period of days in December.

The TSO issued a news release announcing that Catherine Beck was the new board chair. The press release lumped the unexpected resignations in with the departure of board members who had completed their terms in 2016.

"The TSO gratefully acknowledges the generous contributions and support provided by all obard members," it read.

Almost a year later, the TSO has offered no explanation for this extraordinary change in leadership.

Composer Mychael Danna and music director Peter Oundjian are applauded at the end of a performance of Life of Pi.

The TSO is funded, in part, by public money. Last November, the TSO reported that more than 17 per cent of its revenue came from government operating grants – totalling more than $5.4-million, on an annual operating budget of $30.4-million.

(To compare, grants account for 36 per cent of revenues at the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, with an annual operating budget of about $30-million; at the VSO, government grants total about $4.1-million, about 26 per cent of revenue, on an annual operating budget of about $16-million.)

Hanson says while he believes the TSO, as a public institution, owes the public transparency, he does not believe that obligation extends to reasons an individual steps down from the board.

When pressed during the interview – this was not just an individual stepping down; en masse resignations suggest something more systemic that a public institution might be compelled to disclose – Hanson repeated that the TSO has weathered the events successfully.

"There's nothing about the operation of the Toronto Symphony and the way that it has served the community over the past year that shows any impact from the comings and goings of members of the board of directors."

As for financial implications of the board's departure, consider that in 2014-15, fundraising represented the most significant growth area for TSO revenue – and almost all of the increase was because of increased contributions by board members.

When asked about the consequences of the exodus of all those deep pockets, Hanson said "you'll see all of those numbers when we report in November."

If Phillips is bitter about what went down at the TSO, he keeps it well hidden. While he would not grant an interview about those events, he did say he continues to support the organization.

"The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is a treasure in the city," he said in a prepared statement. "I think I can speak for many former directors who want nothing but the best for the future of the TSO. That it remains – and works hard to remain – a vibrant and successful institution whose relevance grows and evolves right along with our city."

Renette Berman, who left the board last November – shortly before Phillips and most of the others – also continues to voice support for the orchestra.

"I wish for the TSO to be financially healthy," she says. "I wish for there to be more support from the community. And I wish for the TSO to announce boldly their needs, once and for all."

When asked what she means by that, she says, "There has never been good transparency. I believe any organization needs to be transparent. It's everyone's orchestra. And it's about a partnership with community and the orchestra that is so necessary for the well being of a city."

Berman was at Roy Thomson Hall for opening night in September. It was wonderful, she says. But she warns that a business-as-usual approach won't cut it for the TSO; some out-of-the-box thinking – she brings up technology – would be helpful in getting younger, diverse audiences through the door.

"I don't believe in watering down magnificent music. But, if you've got the Life of Pi, what's wrong with rolling some of the [film] footage at the back?"

What now

If the TSO is in danger of becoming a leaky boat, it is also dealing with a perfect storm of vacancies that need filling, fast.

This is a key year for the TSO, with the sendoff for Oundjian, "the Rock of Gibraltar of this institution for 14 years," as Hanson calls him. In May, it announced that Davis, a former TSO music director from 1975-88, would step in as interim artistic director for two seasons – until mid-2020, when the TSO anticipates a new permanent music director will be in place.

Davis is widely respected – but also widely committed. He is music director and principal conductor at Lyric Opera of Chicago and also chief conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. After he opens the TSO's 2018-19 season, he will return to the TSO stage for only five weeks each season. However, Hanson says Davis has been very active in planning the two seasons.

The search for a music director, meanwhile, is "well along," Hanson says. "I am beginning to call it a selection process, rather than a search process."

The TSO is close to announcing a new VP of development, but in the meantime, Hanson and Beck have been busy. "The chief fundraisers of a symphony orchestra need to be the board chair and the CEO and that's very much the case right now," he says.

Recruitment of new board members is also under way; the TSO expects to elect new members at the AGM.

When asked about the potential impact of an arts organization dealing with this level of change, Jonathan Girard, director of orchestral activities for the UBC School of Music, says it could go one of two ways.

"It depends really how committed the group of people left is to making the organization viable. And it could be even a stronger position than before or it might be a weaker position than before. It depends on the personalities and sort of the grit of those folks that are still there."

In the meantime, the organization plays on – and well. The program for 2017-18 is rich with more Canada Mosaic offerings but it is also very much about paying tribute to Oundjian, with special programming to commemorate his long tenure.

Tovey heard the orchestra play last spring, and he says they sounded magnificent.

"I've never seen the orchestra so much on fire and, knowing all the troubles they've been through this year, I was very happy for them," Tovey says. "Sometimes, it's not necessary to have a great administration to have a great orchestra, but they do seem to be in a very good place despite the fact they have these other problems."

Off-stage, key decisions are being made by an interim CEO and a relatively new board. And these decisions will set the course of the organization for years to come, through turbulent seas in a disrupted landscape.

With files from Robert Harris

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's accumulated deficit is $8-million. It is actually $6.9-million. Also in the quotation from Gary Hanson, the TSO’s interim CEO, that “I am beginning to call it a selection process, rather than a search process,” and that the search was “well along,” he was referring to the TSO’s search for a music director, rather than its search for a new president and CEO. This is a corrected version.
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