New beginnings, new directions
Thursday, January 19, 2023
What should an orchestra be in the third decade of the century? James Jolly discusses the challenges with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s new CEO, Mark Williams
Toronto is, I was somewhat surprised to learn, the fourth most populous city in North America, with a population of just under 2.8 million people (and adding in the Greater Toronto population takes you to a staggering 6.7 million). Furthermore, with a one to two per cent growth envisaged every year, it is not just very big but it’s hugely diverse too. Such figures may not be the first thing CEOs of a major symphony orchestra traditionally have at their fingertips, but they certainly are for the CEO of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Mark Williams, who assumed the post last April.
Williams’s orchestral credentials are impressive: before taking up the job in Canada he was Chief Artistic and Operations Officer at The Cleveland Orchestra; before that he was Artistic Administrator of the San Francisco Symphony, and he started his professional life in the music business as an artist manager with Columbia Artists Management and IMG Artists. (A horn player, he holds a music degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music and Case Western Reserve University.) A man of great charm, he clearly has a strong vision for the orchestra in the 21st century. We met last spring in Odense in Denmark where he was on the violin jury for the Carl Nielsen International Competition and we vowed to talk once he’d got his feet firmly under the table in Toronto. And so, halfway through his first full season there, we caught up by Zoom.
These are challenging times for all but a handful of the world’s most-established ensembles, and Williams is fully aware of the hurdles that need to be surmounted. In many ways, the pandemic has turned the spotlight on issues that were bubbling to the surface, but had rarely been addressed with any great sense of urgency. Twenty years ago, the role of a major orchestra was reasonably ‘fixed’. ‘I wasn’t running a major symphony orchestra in those days,’ he points out, ‘so this is an opinion, but I believe that what a major symphony orchestra did, at that time, was the same whether you were in Toronto or Berlin or New York. It was about belonging to the club of great orchestras. It was not about what I think it needs to be about now, which is serving your community. An outgrowth of that would be that an orchestra in Toronto should inherently look different from an orchestra in Berlin, because these are different cities, different people, different values, different physical topography … you name it. I say this a lot here: we not only want to be the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, we want to be Toronto’s Symphony Orchestra.’
With its hugely diverse population, a large proportion of which comes from countries that have no established orchestral tradition, the challenges are tough. ‘More than 50 per cent of the people who live in this city don’t come from Canada – they’re not born here, myself included – and that means dealing with the fact that there’s no visible racial majority in the city. I think it becomes very clear that if you don’t change the way you think as an organisation about how you serve the community, about the importance of multiculturalism and how you meet that, I think you’re probably on a road to extinction. We have an enormous amount of urban sprawl, and there’s crazy amounts of traffic, and that’s very different from living in Cleveland, where actually getting to Severance Hall is relatively easy, because there are not so many people there. I would love it if orchestras were really thinking about melding themselves to being of their city. And I think that you can do that without losing membership in the great orchestras of the world club.’
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is currently engaged in a slightly elongated centenary celebration (it was founded in 1922) and has a Music Director, the much-acclaimed Spaniard Gustavo Gimeno, whose craft was learned as a member of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra during Mariss Jansons’s reign, but also as an assistant to Bernard Haitink and Claudio Abbado. (His other posts include Music Director of the Luxembourg PO, from which he steps down in 2025 when he assumes the post of Music Director of Madrid’s Teatro Real.) As well as concerts in Ottawa, Chicago and at New York’s Carnegie Hall in February, it has just been announced that Gimeno’s contract in Toronto has been extended to 2030, a decent chunk of time that will allow genuinely transformative work to be done. And Gimeno and Williams worked together when the conductor was a guest in Cleveland, so there’s harmony there. ‘I do believe that we can have a profile on a number of different levels. I think about an orchestra that serves the particular needs of this city. Then I think about an orchestra that is the largest orchestra in Canada, and what does that mean? How should we play that role? And then I think about an orchestra that, in my view, is the flag carrier for this great country on the global stage. And there’s work to do on all of those levels – and there’s a way to do that work that’s harmonious and doesn’t take away from any one element. Of course, in running a business like this, you constantly have to be thinking about where to invest the resources. So maybe you’re not investing those resources equally at all times. You might be shifting between them. But nevertheless, I think it’s important to remember that most orchestras receive their financial support at a very local level. So it doesn’t make great sense to think about the local impact of an orchestra as an afterthought, because you’re focused on the global. So again, it’s all about balance, but I think it can work harmoniously together.’
Seen through Gramophone’s very particular focus on recordings, that surely is one way of achieving a global profile? ‘I think it is, and it’s certainly something we’re focusing on here in Toronto. So yes, it’s recording. In the outgrowth of the pandemic, are there other digital and audio-visual projects that make sense – where there’s really an audience, where it’s going to provide access and whatnot? That’s always a bit debatable. I think when it comes to recording, it’s not just simply the act of recording, but – you work for Gramophone, you think about this all day – it’s what are you recording, and what does that say? And as an orchestra, are you making a meaningful contribution? And again, that’s a balance, because everyone wants to do that Beethoven box-set. But one does have to stop and ask, how many of those do we need? And what are the voices that deserve to be heard that aren’t being heard, and how can we bring those to light, and how can we contextualise them in a way that will help them be better understood and become beloved? I think that’s also part of the job that we have to face now.’
Mark Williams’s move to Canada falls at a hitherto uncharted time for orchestras, but this novel climate has also allowed institutions to reset the clock in some ways and address issues like diversity, better reflecting the communities in which they operate, and maybe breaking free of some of the more binding chains of tradition. ‘Yes, I think so. I think that the pandemic created some urgency around all of these. I don’t think that’s anything new – our need to be relevant to our audiences, our need to be more inclusive and more diverse, our need to take risks to meet our audiences where they are – those needs were all there. It’s just that the pandemic and – I sort of hate this term, but I’ll say it – the global racial reckoning, both of those things made these issues suddenly more urgent, and it suddenly came to our front door in a way that we couldn’t ignore. Even some of the issues that we’re having with our audiences – what are we doing to care for the older members of our audience? What are we doing to bring in new audiences? How are we making what we do more accessible? All of those things were there before. It’s just they were accelerated by this period we were in.’
What was the biggest surprise, I wondered, that Williams felt once he started experiencing music-making at the Toronto Symphony on a regular basis? ‘Coming from Cleveland and hearing music-making at Severance Hall, there is a real passion for the orchestra that the fans connected with the Cleveland Orchestra have. I think when you work there, that feels quite normal. Then you step out of it and you realize, oh, no, no, that’s not normal: that’s Cleveland and its audience. I was quite surprised to experience here a very similar deep passion for this orchestra. I don’t know where that comes from. If I could bottle it and sell it, I would. I think there are many organisations that would like to buy it. It quite surprised me in a very good way. It reassured me that the path forward for this orchestra is bright, because there are people in this community who love it. Now, the job to do is to grow that club and to make sure that anyone who would like to be in that club feels welcomed and included in it. It’s not to say that audience development is not on the docket here, but there’s something about that passion that really touched me. I think part of it could be just the sheer quality of the orchestra. I think this orchestra is wildly underrated. The way that they play, especially with Gustavo Gimeno, is quite extraordinary.’
Williams, too, recognises that hunger audiences have now that live music-making is back approaching ‘normality’. And he’s been gratified by seeing first timers coming to the Toronto Symphony. ‘One of the things that I think a lot about is: how do we bring everyone in our hall together – and along? You have those folks who’ve been going to concerts for ever, and they know the rules and they know the drill. How do we not put those people in the role of gatekeepers for the people who don’t? When I’m in the concert hall and between movements one and two of a piano concerto or a symphony or whatever, the audience bursts out into applause, they don’t know “the rules”, but they enjoyed what they heard and they’re reacting to it, and I am thrilled that they are here. I don’t want us to cultivate the reaction of “Why can’t these people learn the rules or leave our space?” How do we bring those folks who have been going to concerts and supporting orchestras for all of these years, how do we bring them into the fold to say, “These new people are important. You love this art form. Don’t you want it to continue? If you want it to continue, if you want it to thrive, then let’s welcome these folks in and make them part of our community.” So can we have a little grace for people who are in the concert hall, who are really enjoying what’s happening? Let’s encourage that joy!’