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Let’s see now: 68 world premieres, 50 North American premieres, 28 Ontario premieres and 15 Toronto premieres.
Not bad for a festival only five years old. But then, 21C isn’t your average collection of concerts. The Twenty-First Century Music Festival, to use its full name, specializes in the new and the recent.
Presented at and by the Royal Conservatory of Music, it crams eight concerts into five days (this year, 161 pieces of music to be heard between May 23 and 27) and features some of the most interesting interpreters of the music of our time.
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Also on Day 3, the self-conducted chamber orchestra A Far Cry will be joined by pianist Simone Dinnerstein in the Canadian premiere of Concerto No. 3 by the minimalist superstar Philip Glass.
And these are only highlights of the opening concerts, with plenty of additional newness to be encountered before the final day, on which France’s Katia and Marielle Labèque (dubbed “the best piano duo in front of an audience today” by the New York Times) play the original two-piano version of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and Toronto’s New Music Concerts premieres works by Roger Reynolds and Brian Harman.
OK, OK, so The Rite of Spring dates back to 1913. Is anything newer-sounding being written today?
Most of the concerts take place in Koerner Hall, whose very opening concert, Sept. 25, 2009 (Glenn Gould’s birthday), featured the premiere of a new piece by R. Murray Schafer. Notwithstanding the Schafer premiere, “the same day or the next I had phone calls from the Star and Globe and Mail asking where is the contemporary music?” recalls Mervon Mehta, the Royal Conservatory’s executive director of performing arts.
“I explained that we needed (first) to build the trust of the audience, but I offered the assurance that contemporary music is part of the plan.”
Five years later, in 2014, the first 21C Festival was launched, thanks to the urging and financial support of the Royal Conservatory’s greatest private patrons, Michael and Sonja Koerner. The Koerners have continued this financial support each year and the festival has continued to champion cutting-edge music-making.
Jennifer Higdon wrote a new piece for the Pacifica Quartet and pianist Marc-André Hamelin in that first season. Indeed, on the festival’s second day three Pulitzer Prize-winning composers sat together on a panel — Higdon, Shulamit Ran and Michael Colgrass — each of whom had a piece on the program.
And so it has gone from season to season, without much public fanfare but with a remarkable commitment to making Toronto a more musically interesting city.
Collaboration with resident musical organizations, such as the Esprit Orchestra, New Music Concerts and Soundstreams, has always been a feature of programming. But what has really distinguished 21C is its surprises; the arrival of music and musicians able to open ears and challenge minds.
You never know quite what to expect from 21C. This year there will even be a concert celebrating Estonia’s centennial, featuring a violin and piano duo, an electronic music composer and the Grammy Award-winning, 15-member Estonian vocal ensemble Vox Clamantis.
When Mehta speaks of building the trust of the audience, he identifies a key to the Royal Conservatory’s success as a presenter. The 21C Festival marks not only its fifth anniversary this month, it also concludes the acclaimed 10th-anniversary season of concerts at Koerner Hall, now recognized as Toronto’s finest concert venue.
People love this hall because of its beauty, comfort and superb acoustics. They also come because of the dependably high standard of music-making onstage, whether classical, pop, jazz or world music.
To take this for granted would be a mistake. As a veteran concertgoer with decades of experience in dozens of countries around the world, I continue to admire the range and quality of what Mehta and his team bring to Toronto and anticipate 21C as a way to keep my ears pointed forward.