TSO: Crises Weathered, Challenges AheadIt’s been less than two years since the then-chair of the board of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Richard Phillips, and eight of his senior colleagues, including Sonia Baxendale, stunningly and abruptly resigned from the organization one December afternoon. It remains a mystery to this day why they left.

Had this kind of thing happened at other similar organizations – the New York Philharmonic, or the Metropolitan Opera, let’s say – it would have been front-page news. Here, it barely caused a stir, and since then, Richard Phillips and Sonia Baxendale seem to have been more or less expunged from the history of the TSO. Which is a pity.

Because what’s interesting about Phillips and Baxendale is that without them, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra may well have gone bank-rupt in the spring and summer of 2016. Today, as the TSO is finally achieving some desperately needed organizational stability, it’s hard to imagine how different things were not that long ago. But in March of 2016, after the now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t departure of short-lived TSO president and CEO Jeff Melanson, the TSO was within a few thousand dollars of insolvency. Senior financial officers were ap-proaching department heads to inquire whether there was anything that could be sold to keep the organization afloat. In a situation streaked red with emergency, Phillips and especially Baxendale (who became the organization’s acting CEO, for an agreed six-month term, after Melanson’s departure) steered the TSO ship rockily but successfully to a small surplus in fiscal 2015/16. They accomplished this by applying the appraised value of a valuable TSO viola against the organization’s accumulated deficit (reducing that deficit by four million dollars), con-vincing the Toronto Symphony Foundation to double its annual contribution to the TSO, and one assumes, by writing some generous cheques of their own. For thanks, within eight months they had disappeared from the organization.

Perhaps Phillips’ and Baxendale’s departure was karma for the sin they had committed of hiring Jeff Melanson to be the orchestra’s presi-dent and chief executive officer in the first place. We shall never know the full extent of Melanson’s toxic influence on the TSO, but it can be effectively argued that the organization is just now recovering from it. Before Melanson, the Toronto Symphony had had one CEO for 12 years, Andrew Shaw. In contrast, there have been four changes of leadership since – four administrative regimes in four years. A year and a half of Melanson, six months of Phillips and Baxendale, two years of Gary Hanson as interim CEO, and now a few months of Matthew Loden, the TSO’s just recently appointed CEO.

It is a tribute to the TSO that it has not only survived these ongoing challenges, but has seemed to emerge from them with momentum. The latest annual report showed an operating surplus for fiscal 2017-18 of over two million dollars (although that surplus was buoyed by a $3.2 million grant from Canadian Heritage that will not be repeated next year). Matthew Loden, the new CEO, comes with a fine track record with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The appointment of a new Music Director, Gustavo Gimeno, was announced this fall, to replace the recently re-tired Peter Oundjian, although Gimeno won’t actually take over until the fall of 2020. Throughout all the organization’s troubles and travails, the staying power and continuity of the true heroes of the Toronto Symphony, Loie Fallis, vice-president of artistic planning and Roberta Smith, vice-president and chief of staff, can’t be over-estimated. I’m guessing that the organization’s outgoing and highly popular former mu-sic director should also be included on that list.

The TSO seems to have weathered the existential crises of the past five years, bending without breaking. All arts organizations these days, worldwide, are perched on very delicate financial precipices, the distance between success and catastrophe very short indeed. The real challenge for the Symphony is that the organizational turmoil of the past few years has prevented the orchestra from effectively redefining its artistic mandate and raison d’être in the post-Oundjian era. Andrew Davis has stepped in as the organization’s titular head as the TSO awaits Gime-no, but all of Oundjian’s signature programming initiatives of the past few years have been erased. There will be no Mozart Festival this year, no Decades projects, most distressingly, no New Creations Festival. A city’s symphony orchestra should be the primary musical institution in any metropolis, if only by dint of its size and budget and prestige. But programming counts for something too, and here the TSO is losing that primacy. Tafelmusik is playing these days with greater assurance and self-knowledge, under the inspired new leadership of Elisa Citterio. The Royal Conservatory is outflanking the TSO in terms of New Music, having just moved its successful 21C Festival to January, to fill the gap in the winter calendar where the TSO’s New Creations Festival used to be. The Canadian Opera Company, although not really a TSO competitor, has come to dominate the musical public relations scene in the past few years.
Hopefully, the groundwork has been laid for that to change in the Gustavo Gimeno era. People clearly wish the symphony well and are ex-cited and curious about the new music director. The TSO has already had to add an extra concert for Gimeno’s season-ending appearance with the orchestra this coming June, which is a good sign. Single ticket sales, which have eclipsed subscriptions as a source of TSO box office reve-nue, are also on the upswing. Another positive indicator. A financial plan for stability seems to be within the TSO’s reach, finally. And the current TSO board, led by chair Cathy Beck, extending her family’s long-standing dedication to the Toronto Symphony, looks set to provide a level of continuity to the organization as well.

But the biggest challenge to the Toronto Symphony remains to be addressed. When I spoke to Gary Hanson at the beginning of his tenure as interim president and CEO of the TSO, we talked about the upcoming challenge of replacing Oundjian as music director of the organization. Hanson reminded me that the question that the symphony needed to answer was not who the new conductor would be, but what. In other words, what kind of an organization did the TSO want to become? That used to be a relatively simple question for symphony orchestras in a secure, musical world. It isn’t anymore. Playing the classics beautifully isn’t enough. Or maybe it is. But what about attracting new audiences, reflecting the cultural diversity of the city in which the orchestra is housed, educating people about music, reaching out to other musical communities? It’s not at all obvious where an orchestra should be directing its attention these days. Gimeno is young, which is good, and con-sequently brings few musical expectations with him, which is also good. But it was clear when his appointment was announced in September that he has no idea yet what kind of a place Toronto is, having spent literally no more than a few days in the city up to that point as a guest conductor. But he’ll have two full years to figure that out, along with Matthew Loden, himself just a few months into his tenure.

And more power to them all! We need the TSO to be strong, and it hasn’t been able to be especially so in the last few years. Musicians, and orchestral musicians especially, are notoriously grumpy and dark about life, but music is not. Music is optimistic, bright, life-fulfilling. It is the path that its music creates for it that can give the TSO the hints it needs to secure its future. And we’ll all be the better for it.

Robert Harris is a writer and broadcaster on music in all its forms. He is the former classical music critic of the Globe and Mail and the author of the Stratford Lectures and Song of a Nation: The Untold Story of O Canada.

A Jewish Defence of Wagner’s Ring

Charles Heller

The November 2018 issue of The WholeNote ran an article by Robert Harris (“Wagner in the Age of #MeToo”), claiming that the #MeToo movement should stir us to consider Wagner’s Ring as being unacceptable to modern audiences because of its antisemitic message. As a Jewish Wagnerian, here is my response.

A few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Gottfried Wagner, who, with his penetrating gaze and aquiline nose, conjured up the aura of his great-great-grandfather. He said emphatically: Wagner’s music is great art, the composer and his family were monsters, and we must respect the wishes of those who do not want to hear it publically performed in Israel, a country he loved. He was also of the opinion that fu-ture generations of Israelis, no longer traumatized by first-hand experience of the Shoah, will be able to accept Wagner performances. These views are supported by Israeli music-lovers today.
Richard Wagner said a lot of contradictory and inflammatory things, but when it came to composing music he knew what he was doing. The idea that antisemitism is at the heart of the Ring is preposterous. Mime and Alberich are not Jews, they are dwarves, and they were dwarves when the story was composed in medieval Iceland, where no Jew was ever seen. But people certainly imagined they saw Jewish gestures in Wagner’s dwarves - Mahler complained of one particular performance that it was a ”caricature of a caricature”. But that didn’t stop the Jew Mahler, or his colleague the Jew Schoenberg, from regarding Wagner’s scores as central to Western music. The Ring is not about an evil Jew, it is about what it takes to be oneself and overcome obstacles – overbearing parents (the gods), irrational fears (the giants), brash egotism (the runes on Wotan’s spear) and whatever else is clogging your subconscious mind.
If it were really true that the Ring is an antisemitic diatribe, and that art is to be judged on the morality of the artist, then why stop with Wagner? We still are left with the music of Chopin (who accused Jews of destroying Polish music) and the poetry of T. S. Eliot (who accused Jews of destroying Western culture). Dickens hated Jews too, and don’t get me started on The Merchant of Venice or Caryl Churchill’s play Seven Jewish Children, which despite being intended as an attack on Jews was performed in Toronto with the financial support of the City a few years ago.
Jews have lived with antisemitic garbage for 2000 years, much of it encouraged by the Church and the State. To claim that the Ring is anti-semitic is a perversion of what the Ring and what antisemitism are all about. Antisemitism is alive and well today, both in the twisted minds of far-right thugs in the USA and in far-left politics in the UK and Canada. In the age of #MeToo we must certainly refuse to work with peddlers of hatred and harassment. But Richard Wagner is long dead and his work endures.

Charles Heller is an Associate Composer of the Canadian Music Centre. He is on the editorial board of the Journal of Synagogue Music, published by the Cantors Assembly, New York and is the author of What to Listen For in Jewish Music. His new book Shul-Going will be published in 2019.

WagnerEarlier this fall, the relationship of the music of Wagner and the State of Israel once more leapt back into public prominence, a Valkyrie of controversy once again bellowing its “Hojotoho” to the world.

An Israeli radio station – the public broadcaster no less – broke the longstanding and hardened, if unofficial, ban on Wagner’s music in that country by presenting the third act of Götterdämmerung to an unsuspecting public at the beginning of September. The station soon apologized, citing the pain that the broadcast might have caused Holocaust survivors. Ironically, the performance in question was a live recording from Bayreuth led by the Jewish Daniel Barenboim, long a Wagner champion.

The apology itself created another firestorm. Although the traditional arguments for banning Wagner in Israel are both Hitler’s affinity for Wagner, and the composer’s own repulsive anti-Semitism, the head of the Wagner Society in Israel, Jonathan Livny, said the ban was a mistake. Livny admitted that although Wagner’s ideology was “terrible,” the music was beautiful, and the “aim was to divide the man from his art.” This, I’m relatively sure, represents the view of many enlightened listeners all over the world, both those who love Wagner and those who hate him. Art and the artist should be separated; the work must be allowed to stand on its own merits. That is what art itself demands.

These days, interestingly, this traditional view (which is not only confined to music, but exists in all the arts) is beginning to come under renewed scrutiny from an unlikely source – the #MeToo movement. Granted, the connection is a tangential one: much of #MeToo, with its wide ambit, has nothing to do with the arts, let alone Wagner, but the movement has, among other things, reminded us that for many, it is perfectly legitimate to refuse to divide the artist from his or her art. Maybe they shouldn’t be divided; maybe artists and their art exist in a complicated, roundabout, mutually self-referencing cycle of meaning. Maybe allowing judgments of the two to intersect is a more sophisticated and honest view of artistic reality. Maybe the old traditional “hate the artist but love the art” is a very superficial attitude towards the power of aesthetic life. Maybe that’s only what you believe when nothing is at stake.

I must say I have more than a little sympathy for this line of reasoning. The notion that music exists in some perfectly insulated temple of pure meaning, untroubled and unconnected to the rest of the turbulent, messy activity of life robs it of its authenticity and credibility, robs it of the opportunity it has to be firmly and powerfully in the world. Music-making is deeply grounded in politics, ideology and social discourse. It always has been. To assume that there is a separate, unsullied aesthetic dimension, in which pure judgments of musical worth can be made, is appealing perhaps, but is simply an ideology that passes as unassailable truth. It’s dangerous, no doubt, and demands from us care and attention and grace, but perhaps it’s time to suggest that art can legitimately be judged on moral as well as aesthetic grounds, including the moral behaviour and actions of its creators.

That might mean one thing when we’re discussing the revival of Louis Riel, another when we look at Madama Butterfly. In Wagner’s case, if we would just be honest with ourselves, we would admit that the personality of the composer, his beliefs and his art have always been inextricably linked. We always let the overwhelming power of the music blind us to a reality we know is lurking in the background. It’s not that we don’t understand the questionable quality of Wagner’s art – it’s just that we decide not to care.

The basic bone caught in the throat of modern Wagnerians has to do with his oft-stated and repugnant anti-Semitism, a virulent anti-Semitism that we are expected to believe infected his life but left his art untainted. But surely just to state that is to play at the edges of the absurd. The Israeli novelist Amos Oz has said that all art in the end is a portrait of the hand holding the pen creating it, and surely he is right. It would be almost inhuman to suggest that an ideology and worldview so central to Wagner’s life and being could be hermetically sealed off from his workWagner’s anti-Semitism was not merely a prejudice, an unreasonable hatred of a group of people. It was a world view. Jews to Wagner were the ultimate scapegoat – the root cause of everything corrupted in the German world. Wagner was not just an anti-Semite; he was a primary intellectual progenitor of the Third Reich. To blithely say that Wagner was Hitler’s “favourite” composer, the way you might choose Bedřich Smetana or I might choose Michael Haydn, is to glide over this central point. Wagner was the key to Nazism. “Whoever wants to understand National Socialism,” said Hitler, “must first understand Wagner.” From the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

And, of course, this philosophy is not just central to Wagner’s life; it is at the heart of Wagner’s art as well. In his magnum opus, the Ring, the gnomic and dwarfish Alberich and Mime are surely none other than thinly disguised, dog-whistle portraits of his ultimate Jewish scapegoat, obvious to Wagner’s 19th-century audiences, banging out a dissonant hammered song in the bowels of the tetralogy’s body. It is the curse of Alberich, of the ultimate scapegoat, that haunts the Ring, and, in the end, no one, not Wotan, not Siegfried, not Brünnhilde, can escape it, a curse symbolized by the burning Valhalla. Perhaps if some intrepid director made the flames at the end of Götterdämmerung emanate from a Reichstag fire, or inscribed Arbeit Macht Frei over Mime’s demonic workshop, we would get the point. The Ring is as inherently anti-Semitic as Das Judenthum im der Musik.

So maybe our Israeli friends are not so crazy. As for the rest of us, sitting in the opera house or concert hall, assiduously “dividing the man from his art,” it’s time, perhaps, for us to be neither surprised nor indignant if we find #MeToo-inspired questions disturbing our pleasure.

Robert Harris is a writer and broadcaster on music in all its forms. He is the former classical music critic of the Globe and Mail and the author of the Stratford Lectures and Song of a Nation: The Untold Story of O Canada.

Preliminary Hadrian costume sketch by costume designer Gillian GallowIt hasn’t opened yet. We don’t know what awaits us. But the Canadian Opera Company’s bet on Rufus Wainwright’s Hadrian can’t lose.

Oh, it can be a failure, for reasons I’ll explain below. But failure doesn’t mean failure.The very fact that Hadrian is opening as scheduled is a small triumph. When plans for the opera were announced five years ago, the Canadian compositional aviary exploded in a cacophony of aggrieved screeches, wails, squeaks and caws. How dare the COC give its first commission in decades to a pop star, with one “opera,” Prima Donna, to his name, one which he didn’t even orchestrate himself? How dare they pass over the many worthy Canadian serious composers waiting in the wings for just such an opportunity. What postmodern nonsense was this desperate ploy to attract new audiences with warmed-over Top 40 drek?

And then, to compound the anxiety, lurking in the recesses of the Canadian music community’s fearful id, was this never-expressed worry – that Alexander Neef, clearly a man who knows and understands international operatic excellence at every level, had passed judgment on the Canadian compositional community with this commission. That he had revealed to us a truth we didn’t want to hear, that we were the Pawtucket Red Sox in the world of international classical composition, not the New York Yankees. That for Neef, apparently, Rufus Wainwright, despite his lack of “serious” music credentials,had one thing that all of the Canadian compositional community did not – he had written music whose originality and charm had won him an internationally appreciative audience.

The anger over Hadrian seems to have been replaced by a stiletto-sharpened skepticism. A repressed hope for its demise. And Hadrian can fail – but only if Wainwright and Daniel MacIvor, the opera’s composer and librettist, have let it. It can only fail if they haven’t pushed their vision far enough, haven’t solved the knotty and intractable artistic problems that bedevil every creative work, or, faced with the horrors of rewrite after rewrite, have taken the easy way out. It can fail if it is just another pop pastiche, floating along on the grandeur of operatic convention, ear and eye candy for a new generation of operagoers.

But even then, it would hardly be the first new opera to flounder. This is Neef’s greatest triumph with Hadrian, that he has been unafraid to push the opera towards its reality in sound and sight. In an international world where new opera is so difficult and expensive, bedevilled by delays and false starts and outright stillbirths, he has persevered to the end, probably spending upwards of two million of his cherished and hard-won funding dollars on a production that has so far failed to attract any co-commissioning partners. Hadrian will succeed first and foremost because it showed up – it will be presented as planned on the Four Seasons mainstage, undoubtedly attracting international attention, announcing the COC’s ability to walk the walk of new commissions. With a dozen screaming demons undoubtedly bellowing in Neef’s ear that the opera is a mistake, he will nonetheless march it into the world on October 13, unbowed and unafraid. (Well, at least unbowed.)

And let’s put away the increasingly irrelevant and odious pop music/serious music dichotomy that swirls around Rufus Wainwright and Hadrian. Where would you put the American Nico Muhly, who has worked both sides of the street, whose Marnie, based on the Hitchcock classic, is opening this season at the Met. Where, indeed, would you put Philip Glass? Opera has always been fluid and porous at its boundaries (the Habanera was based on a current cabaret song when Bizet re-wrote it for Carmen). That is one of its strengths. And let’s also not forget the other, often overlooked originality of Hadrian: not only its recovery of opera’s always present, but often repressed, eroticism (there’s already a nudity warning on the COC website) but that it is an explicitly and unashamedly queer work occupying centre stage at the Four Seasons Centre. Here’s a prediction – that if, as I suspect, everyone is talking about the production details after it opens, no one will care anymore about the score and whether it’s any good or worthy to be presented. The reaction to opera is unpredictable. However, anything that engages an audience, pro or con, can’t be all bad. That’s what opera has always been about. After all, it wasn’t until several revivals of Carmen later that critics could get past the “immorality” presented on stage to actually discuss Bizet’s score.

Hadrian will succeed, even if it fails, because many great operas have succeeded when they have first failed. And Hadrian may not be great – few operas, of today, or yesterday, have been. Hadrian is a success because it has announced to opera audiences the world over that the COC is a place that dares, a place that is willing and able to break down all the barriers that separate the conventional operatic stage from the currents and passions and jouissance of the rest of the world. For once, even though they are seeing a piece set in ancient Rome, COC audiences will not have to trade the omnicultural carnival of the Osgoode Subway Station for the hermetic confines of the Four Seasons Centre when they go to the opera. For once, the two worlds will travel in synchronicity, both alive to the terrors and dangers, joys and exuberance, of actual lived life.

Robert Harris is a writer and broadcaster on music in all its forms. He is the former classical music critic of the Globe and Mail and the author of the Stratford Lectures and Song of a Nation: The Untold Story of O Canada.

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