Canada 150 – TSO’s Innovation for the nation

Toronto Symphony Orchestra has gone through some turbulent times lately, but it has also scored some serious successes. Andrew Anderson met up with TSO vice president of innovation Adrian Fung, to find out what the future holds.

Yonge Street in Toronto is famous for mistakenly being listed as the longest street in the world in the 1999 Guinness Book of World Records. And at 86km, it is long, but I didn’t know that when I set off on foot to meet Adrian Fung from Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) for lunch. I soon found out! After walking in the heat for an hour, I arrived just in time for our meeting at Terroni, one of Toronto’s trendiest restaurants.

Fung holds the rather hip sounding title of vice president of innovation at TSO. I want to find out from the man himself exactly what that means. After all, in the world of classical music a vice president for innovation has to tread a tightrope of tradition along a trajectory plotted with the future in mind. How inventive is he allowed to be?

Before I can ask for details, Fung interjects with a story: “I was at a restaurant in Chinatown the other day and when I looked up from my meal I saw literally one other Asian person in the restaurant. There were Black people, White people, people in saris – and this was in the centre of Chinatown. It really reminded me just what a multicultural place Toronto is. That means we can’t just be a symphony orchestra that resides in Toronto, we have to represent the city and reflect its incredible diversity.”

July Issue: TSO: Canada Mosaic
July Issue: TSO: Canada Mosaic

Continues Fung: “Classical music should never exist in its own echo chamber. Take Bach, he could have just carried on enjoying his own excellence in the Germanic tradition indefinitely … but he didn’t, he wanted to know what the French were doing, and so we have his cello suites. He was a globalist in that way.

“Then there’s Mozart; we all know the stories about how he picked out influences from the popular music of his day and put them in his minuets. And we know that Beethoven was really into Eastern mysticism; as a composer he wanted to know what was out there. If Beethoven hadn’t been touched by this sense of curiosity, then he wouldn’t have stretched the rules of sonata form and we wouldn’t have the 9th Symphony. In the context of classical music, you look at all that history and start to question how we operate today, I often wonder ‘Wow, when did we get so preservationist?’”

All this is Fung’s rather clever way of explaining what his job actually is: namely, to unlock classical music’s dam of pent-up potential and release a river of creativity. Of course, rather like my walk along Yonge Street, sometimes that plan is easier in theory than in practice.

One area of innovation at TSO he’s particularly proud of is Canada Mosaic, a colossal series of more than 50 new commissions to mark the nation’s 150th birthday. For this, TSO got in touch with 40 different ensembles from across the country and asked them to commission a new two-minute work (nicknamed ‘Sesquies’ in honour of Canada’s sesquicentennial) from a composer of their choosing, all paid for by a CAD7.5m (€5.9m) grant from Canadian Heritage.

“Every single province is represented,” says Fung proudly. “We’re supporting these 40 different orchestras by playing pieces that we’ve commissioned. Generally, when you commission a work it gets a premiere and – if you’re lucky – one other performance, that’s it. But with Canada Mosaic, each piece has at least two performances, and certain commissions have four to five performances throughout the year.

“Our goal is to have Canadian music celebrated on our stages and through a larger recording and dissemination project.”

Read the full interview in the July issue of IAM, out now.