Music Toronto has a great deal for artists and audiences

Visitors to St. Lawrence Center’s Jane Mallett Theater can not help but notice a huge lobby portrait of the smiling woman after whom the place was renamed.

(I say renamed because it was called City Hall until Herbert Whittaker, then a theater critic of the Globe and Mail, launched a campaign in 1984 to honor the veteran actress from Toronto, who also happened to be his Rosedale hostess.)

Visitors are less likely to notice a much smaller photograph at the far end of the lobby in honor of Franz Kraemer, founder of the artistic director in the early 1970s of what was then known as Music at the Center.

Now known as Music Toronto, Music at the Center is still largely alive half a century after its founding, with the next concert as a concert on November 9 by the eminent British pianist Stephen Hough.

There have been changes over the years, among them a reduction of concert presentations from an annual maximum of 56 during the golden years to the current season 13, partly due to changed public tastes and the arrival of venues like Koerner Hall.

Although it is still the city’s leading provider of chamber music, the days when the Jane Mallett Theater hosted only two eight-concert series of string ensembles are over. In itself, the now defunct Tokyo String Quartet performed almost annually for 38 years.

Music Toronto still takes pride in introducing young artists to the city, this season including the all-female Esmé String Quartet, founded in 2016 in Cologne, Germany, and British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor. His upcoming appearance in the city on March 29 will be Grosvenor’s fourth appearance for Music Toronto, after becoming what artistic producer Jennifer Taylor calls “a friend of the house.”

You may have noticed that even though she chooses the artists, Taylor does not call herself an artistic director. Why? “Because I’m a listener, not a musician.”

In fact, she taught English literature at a number of Canadian universities before one day in late 1989 she found herself having lunch at a Yonge-Eglinton restaurant next to a table occupied by then-artistic director Chris Wilcox and his Chairman of the Board.

On the way out of the restaurant, the chairman turned to Taylor and said, “Well, you’ve obviously heard everything. What do you think?” She acknowledged that there were, as Meredith Wilson’s “Music Man” would have said, “problems in River City,” she handed him her card.

Two days later, she received a phone call from Wilcox, followed by an invitation to study music in Toronto, followed by the offer of a job as an administrator.

Like the late Walter Homburger, who successfully conducted the Toronto Symphony Orchestra without being able to read a note, Taylor proved to have a nose for talent and the human skills to ensure its loyalty.

She still remembers the time when the prominent French pianist Pascal Rogé asked her to attend her rehearsal because “I trust your ears.”

She credits her audience for cementing the loyalty of so many artists. It is, she claims, the quietest, most attentive musical audience in the city. And she’s probably right – with 499 seats, steeply straight, so the lines of sight are excellent, there’s an intimacy in her workplace that is impossible to copy in large venues.

Artists appreciate this intimacy. Hough, widely regarded as one of the leading pianists of his generation, returns for his fifth Music Toronto performance. His program? In addition to the well-known Chopin and Schumann, he will play Rawsthorne and Hough.

Yes, Hough – one of the other reasons artists like coming to the Jane Mallett Theater is an invitation to play whatever they want, and not surprisingly, Hough happens to be the leading performer of Hough.

Among the ensembles that have similarly become “friends of the house,” Taylor Canada’s St. Lawrence String Quartet and Gryphon Trio, annual visitors supported by Music Toronto from the earliest stages of their professional careers.

No less a friend has been Montreal pianist Marc-André Hamelin, an international figure with a discography of more than 60 albums, returning from 12 previous visits since 1986.

To help celebrate its 50th anniversary, Music Toronto has commissioned two new Canadian works, one from Kelly-Marie Murphy for Ottawa-based pianist David Jalbert, the other from composer-consultant Jeffrey Ryan for the Gryphon Trio.

And on top of everything else, Taylor claims to offer Toronto’s best student ticket price in classical music: $ 10 for the best available seat in the house. What a happy anniversary gift.

WL

William Littler is a Toronto-based classical music writer and a freelance contributing columnist for Star.

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