This year’s edition of the Toronto Summer Music (TSM) marks two milestones: along with a celebration of Canada’s Sesquicentennial, it will inaugurate Jonathan Crow’s tenure as new Artistic Director. Crow, 40, is an internationally acclaimed violinist who has served as concertmaster of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra since 2011. Previously he held that position with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, becoming the youngest concertmaster of a leading orchestra in North America when he was appointed in 2002. At TSM Crow will take on the reins from Douglas McNabney, who helmed the festival for six years.

Jonathan Crow © Sian Richards
Jonathan Crow
© Sian Richards
Regarding his overall vision for TSM, Crow believes his priority should be to continue building on past successes rather than implement a dramatic shift of focus or approach. Indeed, he himself has been participating as a musician over the past six years and thus sees his new role as the continuation of an ongoing commitment to TSM’s philosophy and agenda. “I’ve been playing in TSM since Douglas [McNabney] took over, and he’s also coming back to perform,” Crow said in a phone interview in May. “This year we’ll be bringing back some other mentors as well as we work with great Canadian artists who have done so much in the field.”

He points to a comparable situation with fellow Canadian and violinist James Ehnes, who is among the performers on this summer’s roster. In one of his appearances — a celebration of J.S. Bach — Ehnes will partner with Crow as the soloist in the Double and Triple Violin Concertos. (The third violinist in the latter will be  Andrew Wan, concertmaster of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal.) Ehnes participated in Seattle’s Chamber Music Society for many years as a regular performer and eventually became artistic director, having been groomed by the organisation’s late founder, Toby Saks.

What will be unusual about this inaugural season for Crow is the fact that it coincides with the 150th anniversary of what is officially known as the Canadian Confederation, which united the provinces then under the British Crown. Therefore the thematic focus for this year’s programming has been “a no-brainer.”

“Every concert involves Canadian artists, and most will involve some aspect of Canadian music.” In his recital, for example, Ehnes will combine Bach’s solo violin music and an Ysaÿe’s  sonata with a world premiere by the Austrian-born Canadian composer Barrie Cabena. Crow applauds the opportunity to reject a “ghettoising” attitude that lumps Canadian music — or any special “cause,” such as contemporary music — into one category by itself. “I don’t like the idea of setting that aside to be its own program. I think it’s much more exciting to consider this as we do any kind of music and create programs where a Canadian composer can stand alongside Beethoven and other classics. For me it’s important to show contrasts and connection. So, for example, the opening programme to launch the festival features the St. Lawrence Quartet, one of Canada’s great chamber ensembles. They’ll play Haydn, Beethoven, and a string quartet by the Canadian composer R. Murray Shafer. Audiences can trace the lineage of the string quartet and experience the music of Shafer in a meaningful context instead of a vacuum.”

The string quartet is a medium of profound significance for Crow. Along with his orchestral and solo career, he brings a formidable chamber music background to his new role. In 2009 he cofounded the New Orford String Quartet (in which ensemble he alternates first and second violin with Andrew Wan). Orford’s mission, to promote the Canadian string quartet literature alongside the standard repertoire, echoes the programming of the 2017 TSM Festival.

Members of the Academy performing during a Chamber Music reGENERATION concert © Toronto Summer Music Festival 2016
Members of the Academy performing during a Chamber Music reGENERATION concert
© Toronto Summer Music Festival 2016
And Crow will again take part as a performer at TSM, joining with pianist Philip Chiu for a programme focused on the two founder nations, with music by French and English composers as well as by the English-born Canadian immigrant Healey Willan. Crow is also delighted that two new pieces by Canadian composers, specially commissioned for Toronto Symphony Orchestra soloists, will be premiered: a new chamber work by Carmen Braden of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories and a string octet by the Juno Award-nominated composer Jordan Pal. “This is a new direction, which is fitting for this Canadian year.”

A native of Prince George, British Columbia, Crow recalls being impressed by the sheer size and amount of activity in Toronto as soon as he moved from Montreal. “So much is going on that Toronto doesn't have one shining highlight. But the symphony and opera and ballet all shut down during the summer. So we have a unique niche and a responsibility to provide all kinds of programming from these different areas,” Crow says. This summer will include an opera highlights concert, and Crow envisions future seasons that will offer coproductions as well as presenting touring engagements by other summer festivals to expand the offerings beyond chamber fare.

Regarding specific initiatives, for the immediate future Crow is especially enthusiastic about the role of TSM’s educational mission, which he believes is central to what the festival offers. The TSM Academy, now six years old, has become closely integrated into the structure of the festival, with TSM students and alumni/ae participating in evening concerts as well as a popular series of free noontime concerts in the Yorkville neighbourhood. “Everything we do is based on the educational aspect. The idea is that the concerts flow naturally from there.”

One new feature at the 2017 TSM Festival will be a series of free hour-long concerts specially tailored for children aged 5-12 and meant to introduce them to classical music.

The TSM Academy is devoted to the formation of chamber musicians and singers (18-35 years old) who are preparing to embark on professional careers. A total of about 20 student fellows focus on chamber music, while 12 study singing. They are mentored by the international guest artists on the roster for the festival and perform alongside them.

Jonathan Crow and James Ehnes performing at the 2017 Festival Launch event © James Ireland
Jonathan Crow and James Ehnes performing at the 2017 Festival Launch event
© James Ireland
“At the university you have someone who tells you what to do. Here the students learn by doing. There’s a huge gap where young musicians need to get ready for the speed needed in the professional world. We bridge that in the world of chamber music by having the students work with mentors. They play in chamber groups with professionals and actually take part in the process of rehearsing together. So they get a chance to see the professional mindset of how to approach a piece, the efficiency you need to put it all together.”

“As we go forward after six years of the Academy, we now have a nice situation of graduates who have moved on to careers coming back to the fold to perform. The students form an attachment to the teaching fellows and to the audience members, who see these talented young musicians succeed and make it in the field. And that creates more of a personal connection — something you don't necessarily experience when you simply go to a concert.”

A related effort is the Community Academy, which started in 2015. “This creates a connection between the musicians onstage and people in the community who are amateur musicians. It’s a way of connecting that breaks down the barriers.” This is yet another area in which, for Crow, the TSM Festival resembles a family. “We have audience members that tend to be part of the opera crowd, or the symphony crowd, who regularly come out for specific events and mingle at TSM. And the students and mentors play together, so there really is a family feeling.”


Article sponsored by the Toronto Summer Music Festival.