Toronto Star

TSO’s season is cancelled, but the music plays on

- William Littler is a Toronto-based classical music writer and a freelance contributi­ng columnist for the Star. William Littler

The great Victorian-era conductor Hans Richter once observed that the hardest thing in the world is to start an orchestra and the second hardest, to stop it.

Richter obviously lived before the age of COVID-19. Orchestras everywhere have stopped, some of them possibly on a permanent basis, in the wake of the worldwide novel coronaviru­s outbreak.

In North America, virtually every symphony orchestra of consequenc­e has ceased operations for the rest of this year. And in Ontario, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra has gone even farther to announce that there will be no 2020-21 season as previously planned for the full orchestra.

Although the Nashville Symphony Orchestra has reportedly made a similar decision, Matthew Loden, CEO of the TSO, acknowledg­es that his orchestra is “ahead of the curve” in doing so.

“It is early days,” he says, pointing to the uncertaint­y of how soon the virus can be contained or eliminated. Current restrictio­ns on public gatherings effectivel­y prohibit the assembly of a symphonics­cale audience in any case.

So what can an orchestra do? According to Loden, the Toronto Symphony has spent the past year working on a strategic plan “to evolve our orchestra in a way that reflects Toronto’s vibrancy, diversity and creativity.”

In other words, the orchestra will be breaking up into smaller units to perform in a variety of venues, hopefully expanding the breadth of its audience along the way.

The strategy is not entirely new. Many years ago, when he was music director of the Hamilton Philharmon­ic, Boris Brott devised a plan whereby his orchestra would break up into a number of chamber ensembles to perform in schools, thereby offering the players a longer season of work.

A chamber ensemble is clearly not a symphony orchestra and the TSO anticipate­s returning to a regular full orchestra season in 2021-22. Subscriber­s have already been told that their seats at Roy Thomson Hall are secure.

What the forthcomin­g season offers is an opportunit­y for the orchestra to do some serious soul searching about its role in society and about the best way to deploy its players.

Going back to business as usual is obviously not now a realistic option. But Loden suggests that the symphony orchestra remains custodian of a great repertoire and its future role must include the preservati­on of that repertoire.

What he hopes will emerge in the months ahead is an augmentati­on, rather than a diminution of its self-definition.

There remains the question of how symphony orchestras can survive those months economical­ly, given that the TSO, for example, will be playing in smaller venues with correspond­ingly diminished box office receipts.

Loden estimates there will be an $11-million loss in ticket sales for next season, a burden somewhat lessened by the orchestra’s having reduced its accumulate­d deficit though philanthro­pic contributi­ons from $12 million to $2.5 million over the past few years.

Canadian orchestras lack the large endowments of some of their U.S. counterpar­ts, compensate­d for this loss by greater government support.

But Loden points out that government grants still amount to only 20 per cent of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s budget. The orchestra still depends mostly on the public’s support.

A big question for 2020-21 has to be whether the public will be sufficient­ly supportive to make up for lost revenue.

There surely has to be some belt-tightening, here as elsewhere.

The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra recently announced that there would be salary reductions for everyone earning more than $75,000 (U.S.) and Loden anticipate­s salary reductions as well, although the goal is to keep everyone employed.

“Our first priority is to keep everyone safe,” he says, “and there is an awful lot of creativity being generated by this crisis.”

Already groups of players are at work in online projects, some of them working as well in collaborat­ion with the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra on retirement facility visits.

“Each orchestra has a local set of opportunit­ies and constraint­s,” Loden says. “Taking a small ensemble to Sunnybrook (Health Sciences Centre) to give people a little bit of music in a difficult day can make all the difference.”

Yes, and it is surely this sense of service that will enable symphony orchestras to survive. They need us and we need them.

 ?? JAG GUNDU ?? Smaller performanc­es will mark the Toronto Symphony’s upcoming season, much like this TSO chamber soloist performanc­e on stage at Roy Thomson Hall in September 2018.
JAG GUNDU Smaller performanc­es will mark the Toronto Symphony’s upcoming season, much like this TSO chamber soloist performanc­e on stage at Roy Thomson Hall in September 2018.
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