Trouble with the TSO

Rating: NNNNNIt's easy to poke gentle fun when a venerable institution goes "hip." So it was when the Toronto.

Rating: NNNNN

It’s easy to poke gentle fun when a venerable institution goes “hip.” So it was when the Toronto Symphony Orchestra went sweetly grandma-a-go-go and initiated its current campaign to snag a new, younger audience. In this case, though, Granny had to do something, because Granny was going broke. The orchestra is promoting heavily to 20-somethings through ads and a new Web site where 90-buck tickets can be had for $10. But behind that cutesy push into coolness, the question for the TSO, as it begins its 80th season, is whether it has a significant place in a culture in which ways of listening have changed, probably forever.

When I was in my early teens, back in the late 50s, I would sit down beside the radio every Saturday at noon (this was before television) to listen to a program emanating from a nearby city. The program played the top 10 songs of the week. I listened dutifully. I had calculated that a familiarity with these songs might help lift me from the depths of high school nerd-dom in which I was so securely fixed. Certainly, this music seemed important to my classmates. They would argue, with some fervour, the relative merits of bands, singers and songs. So every Saturday I tuned in and listened. And every Saturday, for the space of that hour-long program, I was bored.

I got my reward, though, at 2 pm. That was when the CBC carried, “live from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City,” a broadcast of whatever opera was that day’s matinee offering in America’s most famous house.

I didn’t know a thing about opera. I didn’t understand what they were singing. I had never heard classical music of any kind. Our school had neither band nor choir.

This music was so alien to the culture of the world in which I grew up that my parents frequently forced me to carry the radio into the basement and turn it down very low so that they wouldn’t have to hear it. I would sit there with my ear pressed to the speaker. I was not bored.

From the moment I heard, almost by accident, my first piece of classical music, I knew — this is it. This is what I want to listen to. (This passion, by the way, in no way diminished my high school nerd status.)***

I’m sitting in the empty auditorium of Massey Hall with the TSO’s Camille Watts and Joaquin Valdepenas. She plays the flute and piccolo he is principal clarinet. We’re meeting to discuss the TSO’s recent near-death experience. I’ve already spoken with marketing director Mike Forrester, so I know the official, upbeat story. Bob Rae has taken over as the TSO’s board chair, and has instigated many much-needed reforms — financial restraints, the hiring of music lover and astute business person Andrew Shaw as CEO, the paring down of what many saw as a bloated and ineffectual board.Roy Thomson Hall is undergoing acoustical renovations (the space was notorious for the deadness of its sound). The orchestra plans to promote itself to ethnic communities without a history of devotion to the Eurocentric classical repertoire. And there’s a commitment to reducing the starchy formalities associated with the genre.

I’m wondering aloud to Watts and Valdepenas, only half-jokingly, whether there might be a “classical music” gene. Certainly their experiences were similar to mine — an instant awareness that this was their kind of music.

Well, they think the “gene theory” amusing but are putting a little more faith in the acoustic renovations at Roy Thomson and their orchestra’s commitment to breaking down barriers with the audience. They want to see more communication from the podium (audiences today need technical and cultural elucidations about the music) and the use of non-traditional music venues.

“And what do you think?” Watts asks me. I tell her that I like what they’re planning. But I wonder, too, about the problems related to what I call the “aristocratic” nature of this music. I’m not referring to class or temperament, though — I’m referring rather, to that ultimate luxury that comes with privilege. Time. Time to do something other than “getting and spending,” as Wordsworth put it. Time to spend several uninterrupted hours doing nothing but listening to a piece of music.

In this sense, the true aristocrats of our age, the people with the luxury of time on their hands, are seniors. Is it at all surprising, then, that they form the bulk of the TSO’s most loyal subscribers?

The young were once aristocrats, too. I’m guessing that pretty much everyone older than 50 can remember a childhood and youth almost entirely bereft of planned events. There was school. The very occasional dance or party. Little or no television. Hanging with friends. Hours and hours to oneself, spent reading or with music or simply wandering.

In modern life, though, it is a truism that the young are at least as busy and distracted as their parents. Happily, they are also inventive and resourceful, and the modern way of listening seems in some way a measure to cope with busyness, sensory overload and an avalanche of sound. Most people today put their musical lives together through snips — a bit from the radio, something on TV, 20 minutes with a CD while making dinner. Phenomena like “sampling” and “plunderphonics” seem to be an attempt to concede that there is a new way of listening and to develop an aesthetics of distraction.

I know only a handful of people who still approach music as rhetoric — that is, as a work with both a thematic and a tonal structure — who will sit down at home and follow the musical argument of a piece, even a very long one, from beginning to end, and who will do nothing else while doing so. Won’t chat on the phone. Won’t read. Won’t get up to pee.

To me it seems the most rewarding way of listening, but it has to be learned. It takes practice. And a concession that music functions rhetorically as well as emotionally. Not to mention socially. Some music we listen to solemnly today in the quiet confines of a concert hall began life as the 19th-century equivalent of Muzak, providing a congenial environment in which to indulge the socially high-end need to see and be seen.

The TSO’s new motto is “We’re all yours.” The institution wants that “yours” to include audiences who don’t normally warm to the notion of attending a symphony concert. It’s hard to fault any of the steps they’re taking. But would it be possible, and what would it mean, for the orchestra to investigate and indulge the aesthetics and rhetoric of distraction?

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