Douglas McNabney is remarkably candid when he talks about summer music festivals. “We’re always looking for a new premise to do the same thing,” he says. “Year in and year out, we do the same 19th-century programming, and try to find a different way of looking at it.”

Douglas McNabney © Bo Huang Photography
Douglas McNabney
© Bo Huang Photography

In search of something genuinely different, the violist and Artistic Director of the Toronto Summer Music festival found a point of departure in the Pan American Games, which are being held in Toronto this summer at the same time as the festival.

“I thought, let’s do the music of the Americas as well,” he says. “Once I realized how much there is and where all the various threads lead, it was a little frightening. But it quickly became clear that this would be about the new world, and all the new directions and genres that were spawned in the new world.”

The result is a schedule that blithely crosses traditional boundaries to present not only refined classical programming, but film soundtrack composers, a brass band, jazz, a multimedia song-and-dance tribute to Argentina and a musical, The Last Five Years. The latter offers a good example of the philosophy underpinning McNabney’s dramaturgy.

“Musicals are a quintessential American form, essentially opera that has been transformed into a style of music that reaches a larger public,” he says. “In presenting The Last Five Years, we are challenging our audience to look at it from an operatic side, and think a little bit further about their notions of where high art ends and popular culture begins, and where the two intersect.”

Karita Mattila © Lauri Eriksson
Karita Mattila
© Lauri Eriksson
It’s an appropriate benchmark for the tenth year of the festival, which was started by a small, dedicated group of classical music fans in Toronto to fill the gap when the city’s orchestra, ballet and opera company disappear for the summer. This will be McNabney’s fifth season at the helm. Along with a fresh approach to programming, he has brought renewed energy to the festival’s Academy, which offers a unique educational opportunity for young musicians. McNabney pared down the number of students to 30, put them all on full scholarships, and integrated them deeply into the performance schedule. Six of this year’s 20 concerts feature young fellows playing alongside their mentors.

“The experience of performing the repertoire with people who have played it hundreds of times is very efficient pedagogy,” McNabney says. “And it’s a lot of fun. When you have people onstage who are thrilled to be there, and thrilled to be learning this music for the first time, it’s a source of new inspiration and energy for everybody.”

Working from that model, McNabney invites seasoned performers who are skilled both in playing the chamber repertoire and teaching it. This year, that includes luminaries such as Martin Beaver, former first violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet; Mark Kosower, principal cellist of the Cleveland Orchestra; violinist Harumi Rhodes, a founding member of Trio Cavatina; Henrik Brendstrup, the original cellist of the Danish String Quartet; and violist Paul Coletti, head of the string department at the Colburn School. “These are all chamber music specialists,” McNabney says. “They may not have the name recognition of famous soloists, but they are at the very top of their game.”

Which is not to say the festival eschews famous soloists. Headliners this year include superstar pianist Garrick Ohlsson, Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman, Argentine pianist Ingrid Fliter and Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, who offers another good example of McNabney’s distinctive approach to programming.

Koerner Hall © Toronto Summer Music
Koerner Hall
© Toronto Summer Music
“If you put an opera singer in front of an orchestra in a big hall, it’s all about how loud they can sing,” he says. “We have them do art songs, which are to vocal music what chamber music is to instrumental. It’s a very intimate form, an opportunity to hear them on a totally different level of expression and communication.”

Festival-goers will find some familiar anchors, like the Danish String Quartet playing Beethoven and Nielsen, and the Borromeo String Quartet playing the complete string quartets of Bartók. Otherwise, it’s a wild ride not only through the Americas, but in American connections that lead back to Europe. The opening concert spotlights Gershwin and Copland, two emblematic American composers who studied in Paris. A trip to Hollywood the following night features Erich Wolfgang Korngold and George Antheil, two European emigrants who became successful soundtrack composers, and Antonín Dvořák, whose music is still used regularly in films.

An avant-garde program will make forays into Cage, Ives, Feldman and Zorn, and nicely balance an “American Romantics” sampling of Barber, Beach and Dvořák again – this time, his “American” string quartet, written during the summer of 1893, which the composer spent in Iowa. The Youth Orchestra of the Americas will handle Dvořák’s seminal New World Symphony.

Squeezing in Panamanian jazz pianist Danilo Pérez, whom McNabney considers “one of the greatest artists on the piano right now, in any genre,” would seem to cover every conceivable base. Still, he worries it’s not enough.

“This year I found more challenging than any other, because there’s such a wide variety of music,” he says. “I feel like with this theme, I should do two or three festivals in a row to cover it all. But I think that’s enough for this festival, this time around.”


Interview sponsored by Toronto Summer Music.