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CineSymphony: Concert Stage Meets Silver Screen This June

Our 2023/24 season concludes with scores of filmic connections to explore
June 5, 2024

This city’s many film aficionados will find much to love about the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s June programming, which brings our spectacular 2023/24 concert season to a climactic close. 

In some instances, the symphonic stage meets the silver screen in ways that are readily apparent: On June 20–22, beloved Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi, who wrote the scores to Studio Ghibli’s most wondrous animated features, returns to lead the orchestra in, among other works, an enchanting suite from the Oscar-winning marvel Spirited Away. The next week, on June 25 and 26, most of the Broadway Blockbusters sung by the marvellous Mikaela Bennett and Ramin Karimloo will be well known to fans of the film adaptations of West Side Story, Funny Girl, Les Misérables, and other popular musicals. And in five Masterworks performances between June 6 and 16, the TSO presents the World Première of Ian Cusson’s Ikiru, which was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s life-affirming 1952 film of the same title, and represents the culmination of our Art of Healing program in partnership with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Though they’re decidedly less overt, a number of additional cinematic connections to our June programs exist as well. Many of the classic composers and pieces featured in our final Year 101 concerts can be heard on the soundtracks to countless movies: Looking for more Mendelssohn? Be sure to watch A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) and Humoresque. Partial to Bartók? Check out Being John Malkovich and The Shining. For Mozart fans, there’s obviously Amadeus—but also La femme Nikita, which is screening in 35mm at the TIFF Lightbox on June 29! And that’s certainly not all. Here’s a deeper dive into some more notable examples:


Tchaikovsky & Birdman

When the impressive young talents of the
Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra and the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra join forces at Roy Thomson Hall on June 1, the piece they’ll perform side by side is Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. The Russian composer’s deeply emotional creation is essentially autobiographical, completed after a period of personal turmoil, and it depicts the relentlessness of Fate. “All life is an unbroken alternation of hard reality with swiftly passing dreams and visions of happiness,” he wrote of the tumultuous first movement. 

Similarly unbroken is Alejandro G. Iñárritu 2014 film, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), which appears to unfold in one almost continuous take as it follows Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), an aging actor best known for playing the titular superhero decades earlier, as he prepares to run previews of a Broadway play he’s staking his artistic reputation on. But, much to Thomson’s frustration, Fate repeatedly intervenes in the form of injured actors, casting changes, family drama, vengeful critics, and the actor’s own insecurity. 

While most of the action of the film is accompanied by propulsively jazzy drum solos, a number of works from the classical canon are sampled on the soundtrack as well—including, fittingly, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth. And just as the symphony concludes on a note of victorious resignation (“Life is still possible,” the composer wrote), Birdman’s own tortured artist arguably makes friends with Fate as well, by surviving a suicide attempt, leaping from a window, and soaring through the air … or does he?


Mahler & The Tree of Life

When one thinks about Mahler and movies, Luchino Visconti’s 1971 adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novella
Death in Venice usually comes to mind, since the “Adagietto” from Mahler’s Fifth figures prominently in the controversial film. But the Austrian composer’s evocative creations can be heard in numerous films across genres—from Children of Men, Shutter Island, and Moonfall, to recent Best Picture nominees Tár and Maestro. However, the one film that arguably captures Mahler’s complex philosophy better than any other is Terrence Malick’s mesmerizing The Tree of Life (2011).

In Mahler’s Third Symphony—which the TSO performs on June 12, 13, and 15 under Music Director Gustavo Gimeono—the composer shares, through some of the most beautiful music ever written, his feelings on life, nature, humanity, divinity, and love. And while the Mahler piece on the soundtrack to The Tree of Life is actually his First Symphony, the themes of the movie are much more closely aligned with the Third. Part domestic drama, depicting the everyday lives of the members of the O’Brien family in 1950s Texas, Tree is also a breathtakingly gorgeous exploration of the spiritual and cosmic. 

In his review of the film, the late critic Roger Ebert wrote, “The Tree of Life has awe-inspiring visuals suggesting the birth and expansion of the universe, the appearance of life on a microscopic level and the evolution of species. This process leads to the present moment, and to all of us.” This interconnectedness of forces is precisely what Mahler seeks to depict as well, albeit in a more linear way than Malick who jumps back and forth through time and space. The structure may differ, but the transformative effect on the audience is much the same.