Toronto plays host to just a handful of touring symphony orchestras in the course of a season – so it’s surprising to see two remarkable orchestras appearing in the same month. And what makes this particularly interesting is that they couldn’t be more different. One comes from a nearby city, the other from a distant land. One is a well-established, elite ensemble with a glorious history; and the other is a young ensemble that arose in unlikely circumstances.
The first of the pair to unpack their instruments in Toronto will be the Cleveland Orchestra, who will perform at Roy Thomson Hall on October 20. They’ve been here before – I remember hearing in them in 1985, and being astounded by their nigh-on perfect precision and balance. Not for nothing have they been called the “hundred-piece string quartet.”
That was 24 years ago, so their return is long overdue. And the music they’ll be bringing with them – Debussy’s Fêtes, Haydn’s Symphony No. 85 “La Reine” and Shostakovich’s Symphony No.5 – should offer a multifaceted account of what the orchestra sounds like these days, seven years into the tenure of music director Franz Welser-Möst.
The second orchestra to come to town in October will be the Orquesta Sinfonica Simón Bolivar, from Caracas Venezuela. They’ll be playing at the Four Seasons Centre – the only hall in Toronto large enough to accommodate this huge ensemble – on October 26, led by their dynamic young conductor, Gustavo Dudamel.
Strictly speaking, the Bolivar Orchestra is an amateur youth orchestra, although they play at a professional level. The ensemble stands at the pinnacle of a burgeoning classical-music culture for young musicians, that owes its existence largely to one man. It was an economist, José Antonio Abreu, who founded the country’s graduated network of youth orchestras (“El Sistema,” as it’s known) in 1975, as a way of encouraging poor kids to take up music rather than crime.
For his efforts, Abreu has won many international awards, including Canada’s Glenn Gould Prize – and the Bolivar Orchestra’s tour to Toronto was organized by the Gould Foundation in recognition of Abreu’s achievements. In addition to the big orchestral concert, there are two other “Sistema” events scheduled, both at the Royal Conservatory’s new Koerner Hall on October 28: an all-day panel discussion on music as a social tool, beginning at 8:30 am; and a concert by the brass section of the orchestra, at 8:00 pm.
And October has more – lots more – to offer. In the pages of this magazine you’ll find about 500 listings for performances in Toronto and Southern Ontario. You’ll also find our annual Blue Pages directory: a “Who’s Who,” containing more than 170 profiles of local performing and presenting organizations. Judging by the level of musical activity this month, I can’t help wondering if there’s really a recession out there. But perhaps I should leave economic questions to Dr. Abreu.
Colin Eatock, Managing Editor