Welcome to the unfrozen North

How Canada reinvented its musical prowess

On Music

My first encounter with music in Canada was so execrable that it was more than 30 years before I went back. the details are scored on my memory like a vandal’s keys on a parked Ferrari.

It was a Toronto rehearsal of Mahler’s fifth symphony in the brand-new Roy Thomson Hall, a venue that had been pitched to me as state-of-the-art. The sound diffusion turned out to be so poor that the lead acoustician in the seat next to me kept whispering excuses in my ear, tears in his eyes. He was hanging cloths from the ceiling, like a medieval banqueting hall, in vain hope of amelioration.

At the coffee break, one of the players stood up to make an announcement. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, he explained, was about to tour Europe with music director Andrew Davis but a small industrial issue had arisen. German Radio had offered to broadcast the TSO’s concert. Unfortunately, it could not pay Canadian union bonuses to the musicians — 25 per cent of their nightly fee, if I remember rightly — and the union therefore recommended that they refuse to broadcast. All in favour? Ninety hands shot up and bang went Toronto’s only chance of getting heard on German airwaves alongside the world’s great orchestras.

Small-minded? There was worse to come. At that night’s concert, towards the hushed end of Mahler’s tremulous Adagietto, one of the double-basses let his spectacles fall o the end of his nose. It made the loudest noise ever heard in Roy Thomson Hall and I swore I would never return.

Back then, in 1983, practically the only Canadian musician the world had heard of was Glenn Gould, a one-off on a sawn-off piano stool who sang along as he played Bach. Gould’s death the year before left Canada with just the tenor Jon Vickers on the world stage. In contrast to, say, Australia, which had Joan Sutherland, Yvonne Minton, Richard Bonynge, Charles Mackerras, John Williams, Barry Tuckwell, Geoffrey Parsons and a dozen more, Canada was musically barren.

Half a lifetime later, when I was finally enticed back, it was blooming with brilliance in every corner. Canada today is the go-to store for musical talent

Half a lifetime later, when I was finally enticed back, it was blooming with brilliance in every corner. Canada today is the go-to store for musical talent. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Montreal born and bred, is the revivalist music director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Barbara Hannigan has dual stardom as singer and conductor. The pianist Jan Lisiecki has recorded the Beethoven year’s most dazzling concerto cycle on DG. Angela Hewitt plays Bach in a crowd of pianists — Marc-André Hamelin, Louis Lortie and Janina Fialkowska. James Ehnes is a sought-after violinist. Canadians are concertmasters at the LA Phil, Boston Symphony, Houston, Hong Kong Phil and other crack ensembles the world over. Oh, Canada, how did it all come right?

In retrospect, the seeds had already been scattered before my first visit in a staggering policy reversal. For years Canada had been notorious for blocking immigration. In the 1930s, it admitted just 5,000 from Europe. On the eve of war, it sent back the MS St Louis with 908 exiles on board, of whom 254 would die in Hitler’s concentration camps.

Among the few who squeaked in was a 20-year-old from Karlsruhe, Walter Homburger. As soon as he was out of internment camp in Quebec, Homburger went looking for talent to develop and manage. Glenn Gould, awkward and unpromising, was his first catch. Homburger was good, but he was not alone. Others spanned out across Canadian media.

Helmut Kallman, ex-Berlin, nurtured Canadian composers on radio. Franz Kraemer, a Vienna student of Alban Berg’s, put modern opera on TV. Nicholas Goldschmidt, Arnold Walter and Herman Geiger-Torel founded the Canadian Opera Company. Alfred Rosé, Gustav Mahler’s nephew, introduced music therapy to Ontario. In 1962 Homburger was made manager of the Toronto Symphony, appointing Seiji Ozawa and Karel Ančerl as music directors and raising playing standards to world class.

In 1976 Canada reset its immigration rules from restrictive to relaxed. Overnight, a trickle of arrivals turned into quarter of a million a year, every year. They spread across the vast terrain, joining orchestras in Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Montre- al, Ottawa, Toronto, Saskatoon and Edmonton. Canada became a destination for Asian artists. The Vietnamese winner of the 1980 Chopin Competition in Warsaw, Dang ai Son, settled that year as a piano professor in Montreal. His students include the recent Warsaw runner-up Charles Richard-Hamelin.

In the space of a generation, Toronto and Montreal were right up there in musical terms with New York and Chicago. Toronto gave Roy Thomson Hall an acoustic refit, making it no worse than London’s Barbican, while the overtaxed Nézet-Séguin is so committed to Montreal that he signed on recently as conductor- for-life with its Orchestre Métropolitain, alongside his two US jobs. Canadian musicians are now out and proud of their country.

In contrast to Australia, where an anti-immigrant, anti-tall-poppy attitude has dried up the talent ow, Canada has changed its weather and made a thousand flowers bloom. The lessons of its transformation are so obvious they hardly need to be stated: keep the gates open, the airwaves free, the colleges well-regulated and the orchestras funded, and culture of all kinds will flourish.

Those lessons need to be noted in Britain as we approach Brexit with pledges to cut immigration, slim down the BBC and devolve arts funding away from London to parts of the country that have neither the infrastructure nor any urgent demand for cultural consumption. The future of British music hinges upon whatever formula the Arts Council can contrive in present uncertainties, and it’s not looking good. I, for my part, am heading back to Canada for the second time in a year to bask in its musical renaissance.

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