Aside from its symbolic role as a new year’s beginning, frigid January isn’t ordinarily thought of as a festive month in Toronto.
Indeed, during his temporary residence in the 1940s, the English artist-writer Wyndham Lewis went so far as to characterize the city as “a sanctimonious ice box.”
If that judgment strikes us as somewhat ungenerous, at least a small part of our response can be attributed to a festival of contemporary music mounted annually by the Royal Conservatory of Music under the title 21C.
Granted, there are those among us who would question the association of festivity in January with contemporary music, among them Jacob Siskind, late music critic of the Ottawa Citizen. Puzzled by the success of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s annual new music festival, he hypothesized that in a Winnipeg January people would go anywhere to keep warm.
I happened to attend the festival that year and witnessed not only the outrage of the audience when told of Siskind’s provocative remark but its collective application of pen to paper to send a petition of protest to the Ottawa Citizen.
Music, as the playwright William Congreve noted in the play “The Mourning Bride,” “has charms to soothe the savage breast” and that includes contemporary music in January, as 21C has demonstrated since 2014.
When the Royal Conservatory’s Koerner Hall opened its doors to the public, we critics, as is our wont, asked why contemporary music was not more prominently featured in the programming.
An important reason, executive director Mervon Mehta explained, is that the new hall needed to build a loyal audience before presenting music that is frankly harder to sell. As the conservatory’s executive director of performing arts, Mehta is responsible for the colour of ink in its books and knew that new music is invariably associated with the colour red.
Michael and Sonja Koerner, among Toronto’s leading patrons of new music, were equally aware of this problem and to confront it offered to bankroll a solution.
Rather than support a number of concerts throughout the year they agreed that a stronger impact might be secured by presenting them in a concentrated period as an event, hence 21C.
The festival’s record speaks for itself. In the first six years it presented 184 pieces of music new to Toronto, 76 of them world premieres.
Had COVID-19 not intervened, this year’s festival would have included a residency by the American string quartet most widely celebrated for its championing of the music of the new, the San Francisco-based Kronos, with master classes and a series of three concerts.
That residency has now been postponed until next year, along with a number of other scheduled presentations frustrated by border closures.
This year’s smaller-scaled, virtual festival, which nevertheless contains a number of premieres by Canadian composers, focuses on three livestreams, the first of them at 5 p.m. Saturday afternoon (and available online for the next seven days) a piano recital by Eve Egoyan. Included in her program are “Seven Studies for Augmented Piano,” an instrument that “teases” the piano’s natural sound.
This is followed by a livestream Jan. 24 at 2 p.m. by another pianist, conservatory alumna Morgan-Paige Melbourne, in a program with more premieres, and a free online presentation Feb. 18 at 7:30 p.m. by the conservatory’s Glenn Gould School New Music Ensemble under Brian Current of music performed alongside projected images and classic silent films.
There would have been a fourth livestream by Angèle Dubeau and her Montreal ensemble La Pietà had recent Quebec government restrictions not prevented the musicians from rehearsing and travelling to Toronto.
This may seem like a modest lineup for a festival that has in the past brought such composers as Terry Riley and Kaija Saariaho to Toronto and presented such headline artists as Laurie Anderson, all without benefit of government support.
“A virtual festival may not be the same as a live festival,” Mehta admits, “but we have a magnificent hall and up-to-date video equipment, and the Ontario government still allows us to operate as a recording studio, so we just keep on going.”
Two years ago Michael and Sonja Koerner renewed their support for another five years so the festival appears secure for the time being. And since we are discouraged from becoming snowbirds this winter, we may as well take guidance once again from Winnipeggers, put on an extra sweater and enjoy the music.