The Toronto Summer Music Festival is growing in popularity amidst an ever-expanding roster of international and Canadian artists. It’s quickly becoming a summertime "must" for culture vultures interested in a myriad of musical expressions.
Artistic Director Douglas McNabney has programmed a diverse selection of international and homegrown talent, including Russian pianist Georgy Tchaidze, Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley, and National Arts Center Music Director Pinchas Zukerman. This year’s festival (running July 17th to August 4th) will also feature the first performance by the much-loved Gryphon Trio at Koerner Hall.
“The live music experience is unbeatable,” McNabney says enthusiastically. “People are looking for more than being spoon-fed in front of a television,” says the Toronto native; audiences of the twenty-first century want to be challenged and inspired.
Concert-goers to this year’s festival, opening July 17th with a concert by pianist Andre Laplante, will get to experience those qualities, with an added European flavor. “We have to do something a little bit different from what's on during the year,” McNabney explains, in reference to the other live music on offer in Toronto, “that's why I tend to look toward Europe. This is one interesting element to bring to Toronto, the European connections, as opposed to the rather North-America-centric connections we see in most concerts in Toronto.”
Now in its seventh season, the Toronto Summer Music Festival features a variety of concerts spread over three weeks, and includes lectures, master classes, and outreach shows.
McNabney, who has been at the helm of the festival since August 2010, is a distinguished musician in his own right, having performed in concerts and various festivals both in Canada and around the world. From 2004 to 2008, he was the Chair of the Department of Performance at McGill University, and is currently Professor of Chamber Music at the institution’s Schulich School of Music.
Douglas McNabney, Artistic Director of the Toronto Summer Music Festival. "There was an almost 25% increase in attendance last summer, which was incredibly gratifying," he says. "One of the reasons is Koerner Hall- it’s a destination unto itself. I see people wondering, ‘What are we going to do tonight?’ ‘Well, what's on at Koerner Hall?’ People want to be in that space. It has a festival-like vibe."
Despite the formal training and background, McNabney is anything but a classical music snob. He’s open to new ways of presenting an old artform, and keen on reaching out to younger audiences for ideas and inspiration. His Friday Late Nights concerts, which offers offbeat entertainment in a casual atmosphere, has been expanded from one show last year to three for this year’s festival. This year’s roster includes a host of Montreal-based artists, including electroacoustic composer Louis Dufort, eclectic band Warhol Dervish, and Juno Award-winning violinist Mark Fewer, whose unusual sound has been hailed as "genre-bending" by the National Post.
“I'm really convinced this is something everybody's waiting for,” McNabney says, referring to Torontonians who crave an out-of-the-ordinary live music experience. “We’re taking the concert out of the concert hall, and putting it into a more informal atmosphere -there's a cash bar -and if people feel like clapping between movements, why not?”
This series, in its second year now, could be central to the festival’s future expansion, especially since it eliminates what McNabney terms the “formalism” of traditional classical music concerts.
“We got rid of the decorum and rules that can be off-putting for people who don't have that kind of upbringing,” he explains. “When (non-classical fans) go into a concert hall they’re made to feel inadequate, that there’s this inner circle who know how to behave -it frightens them away. We’re looking for occasions to bring in that public. The genre is important, but the experience of really connecting with the musicians onstage, who have something to say with their genre, is what it's all about.”
Moreover, McNabney sees the festival as being part of a so-called “indie classical scene” which clubs like Le Poisson Rouge (in New York City) have helped expand. “I got a big kick out of reading (violinist) James Ehnes’ bio,” McNabney says with a laugh, “he lists his appearance at Royal Albert Hall, and right beside it, Le Poisson Rouge!” For a performer of Ehnes’ stature to give a nod to his time at a small club on Bleeker Street bodes well for the burgeoning casual-classical scene, which McNabney sees growing in popularity.
“(Audiences) under thirty-five don't have natural exposure the past generations have had, but they have as much curiosity,” he observes. “There’s a tremendous openness in the young audiences now. You can see it everywhere. When I was growing up everything was about non-conformity, but the non-conformity was almost more dogmatic. You had to have long hair, had to wear jeans.” He lets out a hearty laugh.
“Now, anything goes, and I love that.”