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Planning an Extraordinary Return to Live Concerts in the Face of Uncertainty

June 17, 2021

The TSO’s highly anticipated return to the stage is scheduled for November and for many, that can’t come soon enough. But for Music Director Gustavo Gimeno, the planning began many months ago, amid an enormous set of unknowns, many of which remain. What will be public health mandated capacity limits? Will musicians need to distance themselves on stage? What are the implications for how many musicians can be on stage at one time? Will travel restrictions be in place? 

Gustavo and CEO Matthew Loden answer a few of the questions that went into planning the 2021/22 season.

What was the most important thing you wanted to achieve for the 2021/22 season?

Gustavo: It was very important to stay true to what a major orchestra's purpose is, which is to say, that we perform important, powerful works from the classical canon, that we showcase living composers, that we foster new creations with commissions, and that we collaborate with diverse artists. I am immensely proud that we achieved all of these things in a season that I believe will invite patrons to have a musical experience that they will not forget.

I also am very excited to have musicians of the Orchestra perform as soloists this season. Throughout the past eighteen months my family and I have watched with joy from Amsterdam as TSO musicians performed beautiful digital concerts, and I am very happy to feature them individually performing. I am also grateful because they really contributed to the programming and their suggestions really helped me to shape the season.

Matthew: The staff at the TSO were entirely focused on presenting an artistic season without compromise, while taking a measured approach when considering the unknowns. Because we don’t yet know what our public health capacity limits will be, we decided that we would perform works with fewer musicians on stage and shorter concerts when we first return, and then when we expect restrictions to ease in the spring, there will be larger-scale concerts. If the pandemic taught us nothing else, it's to be very adaptable to our circumstances while continuing to perform!

What was the most challenging thing in planning for the return to live performances?

Gustavo: Without question, this was the most difficult season to program for me in my life. There is a wonderful sense of ambition at the TSO in that nobody ever wants to compromise on artistic quality—ever! So the challenge was to create a season that accepted that there may be some pandemic-related restrictions in place, but we can still offer a concert experience that we all yearn for. In the end, having smaller ensembles at the beginning of the season was a wonderful opportunity to program pieces that may not have otherwise found a place, but I think audiences will love. Sometimes limitations can create wonderful opportunities.

Matthew: The most challenging thing is not having a crystal ball! But we have layers upon layers of contingency plans for next season, and of course, will always prioritize the health and safety of our patrons, musicians, and staff. Once we start to learn more about what life in Toronto will look like in the fall, we will be able to provide answers to the very reasonable questions patrons are asking.  

Can you highlight a few elements of next season that reflect the times we are living in?

Gustavo: There is quite a beautiful arc to begin the season with Anthony Barfield’s piece Invictus—which means “unconquered” in Latin—after such a painful 18 months. He is a Black composer based in New York and he created this work to evoke the resilience, adaptability, and uncertainty of his city during the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests. The season closes with Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, and it's such a wonderful way to celebrate the reunion between our audience and musicians.  In addition to some key works like Dvořák’s New World Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s 5th, which the first symphony performed by the TSO, and Mahler’s 1st, a piece which is very close to my heart, there are some world premières and other pieces which are new to TSO’s audience, which all together create some very exciting combinations/contrasts.

To be honest, it has been very difficult for me to not be with the talented TSO musicians for most of the past 15 months, and the fact that I will be on the podium for 11 concerts this season is something that I am very thrilled about.

Matthew: For me, the very fact that despite not having ticket sales for 15 months, we are in a financial position to present a full season of concerts next season says something very fundamental about the enduring relationship that the TSO has with its city and with our patron community. Ticket-buyers told us we could hold onto their funds for future concerts when we were forced to cancel last year, donors were incredibly generous, and government funders clearly understood our many contributions to the community. It's been incredible to see.

TSO Music Director Gustavo Gimeno and the Orchestra.
Photo by Jag Gundu