Orchestra Spotlight:
Toronto Symphony Orchestra

The Toronto Symphony is in the middle of what may turn out to be one of the great comebacks in orchestra history. Although it had a long history, a distinguished list of former music directors, a large discography, and a home city that is to Canada what New York is to the US, it came very close to folding in 2001. Its return from the brink is a story with lessons for many orchestras.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra The Toronto Symphony Orchestra (click to enlarge)

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is the largest, and by some measures the oldest, orchestra in Anglophone Canada. The first orchestra calling itself the TSO was formed in 1890, although a semi-permanent version had to wait until 1906. That orchestra featured many world-renowned guest artists, including violinists Fritz Kreisler, Eugène Ysaÿe, Carl Flesch, and the 17-year-old Mischa Elman; pianists Wilhelm Backhaus, Vladimir de Pachmann, and Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Sir Edward Elgar conducting his oratorio “The Dream of Gerontius.” Unfortunately, this orchestra did not survive the economic hardships of the First World War.

1923 saw the rebirth of the TSO as the “New Symphony Orchestra” (which name was changed in 1927 back to “Toronto Symphony Orchestra”), with the musicians receiving a fee of $3.95 per concert. The orchestra became the first orchestra nationally broadcast across Canada in 1929 with a series of 28 broadcasts from the Arcadian Court restaurant in the Simpson’s department store in downtown Toronto.

The orchestra’s modern history began with the appointment of Canadian conductor and composer Ernest MacMillan in 1931 (the last Canadian music director of the TSO until the appointment of Peter Oundjiain in 2003). MacMillan programmed far more contemporary music than had his predecessors (including the local premieres of the Sibelius symphonies), and in fact Holst's The Planets became the most-repeated work during his tenure and the first work recorded by the TSO. He also introduced considerable numbers of Canadian works.

The TSO’s first international tour was to the US in 1951 and became the cause of a major public dispute, when the orchestra fired six musicians who had been refused entry to the US on unstated grounds. The case of the “Symphony Six” caused much bad press for the orchestra, which unfortunately did not lead to the musicians’ reinstatement or even the support of their local union (although one, Steven Staryk, returned many years later as concertmaster). MacMillen, who was criticized for not having taken a position on the matter, eventually resigned in 1955, and was replaced as music director by Walter Susskind.

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If you would like to listen to the TSO live, visit radio2.cbc.ca. Select "Concerts on Demand" from the menu on the left. There you will find many concerts searchable by genre or keyword. Among the many choices are TSO broadcasts of The Rite of Spring, Bruckner IV, The Planets, Dvorak VI, and the TSO Mozart Festival. These concerts can be streamed, but not downloaded. The new TSO live concert CD of Enigma Variations and Pictures at an Exhibition is available on iTunes.
marktuba on March 27, 2019 at 2:41 PM

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