MUSIC

Striking the right chord

Under Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Toronto's symphony is on a roll

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER March 25 1996
MUSIC

Striking the right chord

Under Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Toronto's symphony is on a roll

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER March 25 1996

Striking the right chord

MUSIC

Under Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Toronto's symphony is on a roll

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER

When the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s new CD appears in music stores next fall,

its cover will feature a photo of its exciting young conductor, JukkaPekka Saraste, looking casual— even hip—in jeans and dark glasses. But during a recording session at Roy Thomson Hall, the orchestra’s home venue, Saraste is definitely not relaxed. Backstage, in a makeshift control room, the tired, slightly rumpled maestro straddles a straight-back chair, listening to a retake of Pictures at an Exhibition, the romantic—and difficult-to-conduct—work by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky. Saraste had chosen that piece to be the first CD in a new recording contract.

Sound men and some two dozen musicians stand at a respectful distance, waiting for his reaction. But Saraste, 39, is lost in the music. Baton dangling from his left hand, his head nods trance-like as he follows the score stretched across his lap.

Finally, he jumps up. An offhand ‘Yeah, it’s better” dispels the tension, and the players and technicians lapse into easy banter—until the next take. “He’s under a lot of

pressure,” says producer James Mallinson at the end of the gruelling three-hour session. “This is an important recording for him—he needs it to be very good.”

The expectations are high. Two years ago, Finnish-born Saraste was hired to revive one of Canada’s largest symphonies. When the whiz-kid conductor-music director first stepped up to the podium at the TSO, he faced 101 demoralized players who, two years earlier, had accepted a 15-per-cent pay cut to save the orchestra from bankruptcy. Subscriptions—the highest in North America in 1989 at 46,000—had slipped to 37,000. His forerunner, Günther Herbig, had failed to attract a recording contract during his five years with the TSO—a prerequisite for the international big leagues, where the Montreal Symphony Orchestra is a major player (page 62). And, disappointingly, the symphony’s competent concerts had frequently earned lukewarm reviews. “His predecessor’s care-

Now in its second season under Saraste, the TSO appears to be on an upswing. They recently signed a three-year contract with Finlandia

Records, a small, respected label within the Time Warner empire, for six CDs. It is the orchestra’s first long-term recording deal.

Meanwhile, box-office receipts are picking up—good news for an organization with a $3.3-million deficit. And, while the TSO has yet to reach the elite level of Charles Dutoit’s MSO, critics are taking note. Last week, the orchestra won praise for a performance at New York’s famed Carnegie Hall—its first in five years. The New York Times commented that “Mr. Saraste’s approach offered an interesting alternative to the increasingly faceless

international standard.” Saraste appears to have established an immediate—and continuing—rapport with TSO members. He is firmly in control, say the musi-

cians, but he has also created a strong sense of collaboration. “He refuses to be called maestro,” says Camille Watts, a flute player who has been with the orchestra for six years. “He’s very egalitarian.” Usually quiet and introverted, Saraste enjoys socializing with the musicians. Notes Watts: “He shows up at the bar across the street quite frequently.” That style reflects Saraste’s belief that the era of the tyrannical conductor is over. “There have been situations where the musicians hate the conductor, but the orchestra still is very successful,” says Saraste. “But there is no way these days that a dictator could succeed. Always, there has to be a considerable amount of trust between the conductor and the musicians.” The TSO chose Saraste as much STEVEN J. SHERMAN an exciting recording contract and new vitality ful musicianship did not excite the

William Littler, The Toronto Star’s music critic since 1967. for his youthful image as for his impressive credentials as principal conductor of Edinburgh’s Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra— the latter position he still holds. But many observers suggest it is his inventive conducting that is transforming the TSO. Says Mallinson, a London-based freelance producer who has worked with such lumi-

possibilities of music. He is extremely talented.” The musicians appear to be energized by his visceral style on the podium. “I love his musicmaking,” says oboist Frank Morphy. “It always seems so spontaneous. Some conductors are so rigid that a piece always sounds the same. With Saraste, if we play the same piece on three different nights, they will all be different, with different nuances.” Says cellist Simon Fryer: “His gestures as a conductor are extremely communicative—you can see the music coursing through his whole body, not just his hands.”

That confidence, says Littler, flows through to the audience. “He lets them express themselves,” he says. “It is rather more passionate playing, but still elegantly controlled. They haven’t lost the discipline but they are more open and demonstrative, which is communicated to the audience.” The results are measurable: annual subscriptions have increased a modest two per cent, but single ticket sales have soared by 63 per cent since Saraste took over in 1994. Those figures, says the TSO’s managing director, Stan Shortt, “can be tracked to Saraste’s presence.”

Although the orchestra has made numerous recordings in its 75-year history, the six-record deal with Finlandia promises to extend its audience internationally. “This record will be all over the world,” says Warner marketing manager Niall O’Rourke. “It will give them a profile.” Saraste, who has more than 40 recordings to his credit and is perhaps best known for his Sibelius albums on RCA, is now negotiating with Finlandia about the contents of future recordings. Under consideration are works by Beethoven, Ravel, Prokofiev and contemporary French composer Henri Dutilleux. Saraste says he is determined to elevate the symphony to the ranks of the world’s great musical enterprises. He has big plans for a European tour within the next five years. And while he has just another year left in his TSO contract, the Finlandia deal is for three years, and Saraste seems committed to staying in Toronto. He and his wife, Hippe, who looks after their eightand seven-year-old sons and their five-year-old daughter, are planning to buy a house in the city. And Saraste appears to regard the TSO as an important vehicle in his own career. “I’m on track to make this orchestra more international and to let it grow,” says Saraste. “Of course, I’d be disturbed if that did not happen.” At the same time, Saraste is working with TSO management to strengthen the orchestra’s ties to the community. They do not want to duplicate the experience of the Montreal Symphony, which built an international reputation and a strong body of recordings but has lost much of its local following. In response to criticisms that the TSO is too Eurocentric, Saraste has programmed 15 Canadian works in the 1996-1997 season. But the conductor is not prepared to pander to the audience. Instead, he hopes to challenge with 20th-century composers such as Dutilleux. “Sometimes there is a very pale reception to a contemporary piece,” concedes Saraste. “But I think it is our duty to bring all this to the audience—a concert is an ear-opener.” And Saraste, with his big dreams, is intent on opening the ears of the world to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. □