The mysterious politics of the TSO

Why a series of pieces with the word “mystery”?

Sometimes a person may feel clueless. There are times when I feel satisfied with myself and my abilities. I go to a concert or watch a production in a theatre, and come out bursting with things to say. I know, that sounds obnoxious. If you’ve sat with me, I apologize!

But there are times when that free flow dries up. I don’t mean a writer’s block. I can always write, even when it’s about not wanting to write. I guess that’s what this sounds like.

But this concerns my ability to know, questioning anyone’s ability to know.  Some things simply are hidden, secret.

Case in point, there’s a story in the Globe and Mail under the headline “TSO board chair replaced, others out in abrupt leadership change”. It’s full of factual statements. And I come away from it, wondering what’s going on, and I know I’m not the only one.

This is only one in a series of dramatic news stories involving the TSO. Let me remind you of two others:

  • In April 2015 the Toronto Symphony cancelled the appearance of pianist Valentina Lisitsa.
  • In March 2016 TSO’s CEO Jeff Melanson resigned in the face of allegations and rumours.

It’s funny to notice the common element between all three stories. The current board resignations, Melanson’s resignation earlier this year and the Lisitsa affair, all represent decisions that took place in response to some kind of secret decision making. I could be wrong, but it appears to me that pressure was brought to bear in each case. It’s simplistic to suggest that the three are the same, I am only noticing a pattern, that all three stories revolve around a secret process, around pressure being brought to bear, and people being removed or departing:

  • Lisitsa
  • Melanson (yes he resigned)
  • Members of the board (yes they resigned)

I have no idea what’s going on behind all this! Mysteries, right?

Whereas I come out of the exposition of a first movement sonata, confident that I can handle the disorder of the development section, this kind of mystery makes me feel that I am out of my depth. I don’t understand what’s going on behind the closed doors. And why should I after all, I’m not one of the privileged few who are custodians / stewards of the TSO.

All arts organizations have boards and there are decisions made that will be private. I wonder, why is the TSO letting us see any of this?

But the TSO seems to be facing in the right direction. They have their Sunday night radio show that helps them build public interest. They’re doing more and more films with live accompaniment, usually selling every ticket. I can’t help thinking that there’s been a power struggle behind the scenes, that the board of the TSO has been conflicted or perhaps even opposed to the initiatives of those in charge.

I don’t know.

Let’s talk about a few more mysterious things, connected to the TSO.

Peter_O_after

Peter Oundjian with the Toronto Symphony (Photo: Michael Morreale)

They are about to get a new conductor. It’s funny, I sense that for much of his tenure Peter Oundjian did not have full unanimous support from the TSO, that at times his orchestra resisted his control. Over the past five years, however, there has been a gradual change in the orchestra with the arrival of some new & talented players. One of the truisms in management is the habit of bosses to bring in their own people, to ensure loyalty & compliance, while getting rid of those who are opposed.   It’s difficult if not impossible to do that as the leader of a unionized orchestra. It takes time. I believe Oundjian’s recruiting over the past few years has changed the orchestra’s attitude by the creation of a new consensus, a critical mass of superb young players brought in under Oundjian’s guidance & mentorship. There’s a sense of commitment & attention that wasn’t there five years ago. How ironic that in 2016 as the orchestra feels more like Oundjian’s orchestra than ever before: that he’s already got one foot out the door. But then again, it may be because the pressure’s off, and he’s able to relax and enjoy the music-making.

Who’s next as TSO Music Director? we shall see.

And one other mystery to me is why every rinky-dink concert performance in Toronto that has text sung in another language can manage to project translations / subtitles, but the TSO can’t. While they can manage to project state-of-the art high definition films on huge screens, they can’t give us the English translation for the words being sung in another language.  I suppose it’s Roy Thomson Hall, not the TSO, who’s letting us down.  But is the TSO asking for this? They should insist.

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