It was Agnes Grossmann who proved this truism wrong. She founded and ran the festival for the first five years, establishing it as an event that was modest in scale yet impressive in quality. Unfortunately, her wish that a fully staged opera production should be the centrepiece of the festival was too grand a goal to sustain.
Her successor, Douglas McNabney, has maintained the same high standards, bringing top-notch Canadian and international artists to the festivals concerts at the University of Toronto and the Royal Conservatory of Music. After ten years, the TSM festival has good reason to feel proud of itself. The list of artists the festival has brought to the stage is long and illustrious: violinist James Ehnes, pianist Menahem Pressler, baritone Thomas Allen, the Pacifica Quartet and the Nash Ensemble are just a few whom I’ve had the pleasure to hear over the years.
But one aspect of programming that can hardly be touted as a source of pride is the festival’s track-record for Canadian music. This oversight (if that’s what it is) was glaringly apparent last summer, when the festival’s theme was “The Modern Age.” Because Canadian classical music only became a “thing” in the 20th century, the theme should have opened doors for Canadian composers. But the only substantial Canadian fare was Claude Vivier’s Orion, played by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra – and the only reason it found a place in the festival’s programming was because the TSO had prepared the piece in advance of a European tour.
This year, the festival’s overarching theme is “Music of the New New World.” Last time I checked, Canada was securely located in North America – so one might hope that this summer Canadian music might finally find a noticeable place in TSM’s programming.
On the contrary, the program that McNabney has put together this summer is so American in tone that it could easily be a summer festival in New York, Boston, San Francisco, or any other U.S. city. Pretty much the only Canadian classical works that have found their way on to a concert are a few pieces to be to be played by the Canadian National Brass Project on July 22: Ian McDougall’s Bells, Scott Irvine’s Morning Song, and a new work by Montreal composer Nicole Lizée. And as with last year’s TSO concert, the decision to include these Canadians seems not to lie with TSM per se, but rather with the engaged ensemble.
Indeed, the TSM’s programs often have an “off the rack” feel to them: performances of programs put together by musicians touring on the summer festival circuit. And as long as this model is adhered to, Canadian music will get short shrift. To increase the Canadian content, TSM would need to take a stronger curatorial stance in support of Canadian composers. And yes, it can be done: a comparison with the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival’s lineup shows that it’s possible to make Canadian music a priority at a summer chamber-music festival.
Toronto Summer Music is often described as “a musical oasis.” But where Canadian composers are concerned, Toronto is still pretty much a desert in the summer. I would be impressed if TSM would build on the achievements of its first ten years by addressing this situation in its next decade.
© Colin Eatock 2015