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2020-21 Season: Classical Concerts in Koerner Hall

2020-21 Season: Classical Concerts in Koerner Hall

Published on February 12, 2020

With a preview of the 2020-21 Koerner Hall program recently unveiled, and subscriptions going on sale today, we caught up with Mervon Mehta, The Royal Conservatory’s Executive Director of Performing Arts, so that he could take us through some of the highlights of next season’s classical concerts.

James Ehnes

From the concerts that were just announced, which ones are you most excited about?

MERVON MEHTA: I feel like they are all my children and it is hard to pick only a few. I always want to bring back some of the audience favourite artists, who have come to love Koerner Hall, feel at home here, and want to come back again and again. But I want to balance it with new artists as well and introduce them to Toronto. The upcoming Beethoven 250 Festival is a huge new platform that has given us this opportunity to bringing old friends like violinist James Ehnes and pianist Jon Kimura Parker, who have been with us in past seasons but also to introduce the Galilee Chamber Orchestra and Davóne Tines. I am also thrilled to present Koerner Hall debuts by the Austrian mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager and “Iceland’s Glenn Gould,” Víkingur Ólafsson.

Cynthia Dale

This year’s Season Gala concert is different from any you have programmed before – how did you decide to do the concert version of Follies?

MM: We always try to do something extra special for our Season Gala concert – in the past we hosted artists such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Lang Lang, and Hollywood stars Meryl Streep and Bill Murray.
I have wanted to do Broadway musical in concert in some form for a long time, since of course we cannot do a full production in Koerner Hall. Richard Ouzounian, who will direct this evening, approached me and, since Sondheim holds a mutual fascination or even infatuation for both of us, we started discussing his works and Follies quickly made the cut. The story lends itself to not requiring an elaborate set and production, the cast has the right number of people that works for Koerner Hall, and we can do it with a 24-piece orchestra, which will be on stage and interact with the singers (a bonus is that we will be able to use some of The Royal Conservatory’s talented students too). Speaking of cast, we were fortunate to secure an all-Canadian dream cast. The four leads, Chilina Kennedy, Eric McCormack, Cynthia Dale, and Thom Allison quickly agreed to participate. Everyone we approached was thrilled not only about this opportunity, but also for a chance to work with each-other. As for the smaller roles – each and every singer has a killer song that features them very well – Louise Pitre sings the huge hit “I’m Still Here” and tenor Ben Heppner “Beautiful Girls.”

Many arts organizations are celebrating Beethoven on his 250th birthday – what makes this one different from any other?

MM: Let me count the ways …
  1. We have Canadian star violinist James Ehnes! I first proposed to James to be part of our Beethoven festival when I was planning it two years ago. He loves Toronto and he loves Koerner Hall, and we started talking about repertoire and which musician could play a particular piece. Looking at the festival now, we will be presenting many of Beethoven’s trios and quartets and five of his nine symphonies – two with full orchestra and the rest in other guises.
  2. We will have unusual arrangements - American pianist Anne-Marie McDermott will perform the chamber version of the composer’s “Emperor” concerto alongside two of his biggest hits - Piano Sonata No. 14 (“Moonlight”) and String Quartet No. 7 (“Razumovsky” No. 1), with the Rolston String Quartet; and our very own ARC Ensemble (Artists of The Royal Conservatory) will include the Piano Trio in D Major (arrangement of Symphony No. 2, op. 36, by Beethoven himself), String Quintet in C Major, op. 29, and they will be joined by soprano Monica Whicher for some of LvB’s folk songs for voice and piano trio.
  3. We will have two world premieres – Stewart Goodyear is writing a piano quintet based on themes from Beethoven before he tackles the composer’s final monumental work (Symphony No. 9) by paring it down to solo piano and voices, and Marc André Hamelin has commissioned Canadian composer John Oswald to write a new piece for solo piano inspired by Beethoven.
  4. We will have Beethoven reimagined by Marcus Roberts with the Modern Jazz Generation, who will improvise on Beethoven’s “Moonlight” and “Waldstein” sonatas.
  5. 12 of the 15 concerts will be only-in-Koerner Hall concerts not touring anywhere else, such as Adrianne Pieczonka and Michael Schade with the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra conducted by Johannes Debus; the Gryphon Trio with Jon Kimura Parker; and the Galilee Chamber Orchestra with Saleem Abboud Ashkar and Jon Kimura Parker.
  6. We will be adding many complementary events as well to the festival such as film screenings at Hot Docs. Almost off of the facets of the Conservatory will be involved from our students to the ARC Ensemble and our faculty, and many educational events and classes.
  7. And, finally, James Ehnes will play all 10 of Beethoven’s violin sonatas, with which he will open and then close the festival.

Why did you think of James Ehnes to co-program the Beethoven 250 Festival with you and not somebody else, and how did you work together?

MM: I have a very good relationship with James, both on a personal as well as a professional level. He is such as generous human being and a very collaborative artist! We had a number of meetings in person, spoke on the phone, and exchanged emails. He has a vast knowledge of the repertoire, is very open to new ideas, and is someone who does not put Beethoven on a pedestal as much as he admires him.   

What is it about Beethoven that excites you personally and what makes him relevant today?

MM: As with any other great artist, every time you hear Beethoven, you hear something new. I love that there is an enormous range in his style, that there are endless interpretations, and that every one is still recognizable as Beethoven. Everyone knows at least bits and pieces of Beethoven. They are old friends to us now but, in their day, they were very radical. He was a disrupter, a rule breaker, and a certified curmudgeon. What is not to love?

How did you find the the Galilee Chamber Orchestra and what made you want to bring the group to Koerner Hall?

MM: The pitch for the concert came from the agent who told me the orchestra would play Beethoven (which would be a good fit for our Beethoven 250 Festival) and make a stop at Carnegie Hall. I also know the conductor of the orchestra (who is also a pianist) – he was in Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, whom I presented when I worked at the Ravinia Festival in the early 2000s. I was intrigued by the Orchestra’s story, as half of the musicians are Israeli and the other half Palestinian, playing side-by-side, a concept that I support. I happened to be in Israel last October and managed to hear them play and was impressed. So I booked them! But we still needed a pianist, as the Orchestra’s program also included Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1. And a wonderful Canadian pianist came to mind – Jon Kimura Parker. Since he was already booked for our Beethoven 250 Festival with the Gryphon Trio, I asked if he could also play this piece and, happily, he agreed.

John Hopkins

Q: The concert with Joshua Hopkins will surely be very emotional. Can you expand on the Songs for Murdered Sisters?

MM: I have not heard the piece because it is still being written. Joshua sang in Koerner Hall during our first 21C Music Festival and he brought the idea of this piece to me. Many years ago Joshua’s sister was murdered by a serial killer. I remember when this happened and how shocked I was that this took place in a small town in Ontario. Everyone who heard of this tragedy was deeply affected, but no one more than the immediate families of the victims. And that is why I think Joshua commissioned this piece. And he said two magical names: Margaret Atwood, who is writing the text, and Jake Heggie, who is composing the music. It will be a very poignant evening.

Is there anything else you would like to highlight?

MM: I am thrilled that we will have major Koerner Hall debuts by the likes of pianists Víkingur Ólafsson and Jean-Yves Thibaudet, violinst Renaud Capuçon (cellist Gautier’s brother, who has been in Koerner Hall twice already), and mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager, who will sing Schubert’s popular Winterreise. I also look forward to welcoming back viol master Jordi Savall, pianist Beatrice Rana, mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, violinist Gidon Kremer (in what will be his fifth appearance here), and pianists Seong-Jin Cho and Nicholas Angelich (who made his Koerner Hall debut with Orchestre Métropolitain conducted by the extraordinary Canadian maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin). Also of note are the concerts by our very own ARC Ensemble (Artists of The Royal Conservatory) and various student concerts as well as the Royal Conservatory Orchestra conducted by Trevor Pinnock, Peter Oundjian, Johannes Debus, and Gábor Takács-Nagy. And don’t forget ... this is only our classical music roster for 2020-21. All of our jazz, pop, world music, and dance will be announced in June. Stay tuned!

To hear more from Mervon about the 2020-21 season, visit the Classical 96.3FM website for an interview with Mark Wigmore, host of The Oasis.

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