The future is bright, the future is … Canada

The future is bright, the future is … Canada


norman lebrecht

March 26, 2020

From my monthly essay in the new issue of The Critic, out today:

My first encounter with music in Canada was so execrable that it was more than 30 years before I went back. The details are still scored on my memory like a vandal’s keys on a parked Ferrari.

It was a Toronto rehearsal of Mahler’s fifth symphony in the then brand-new Roy Thomson Hall…

Read on here.


  • John Borstlap says:

    Great story. Who would have thought? It’s relatively cold up there. But it shows that it is people’s mentality and courage to think out of the box, combined with the idea that somehow, culture is important for the whole of society, even if not everybody likes it.

    • Tom M says:

      re ‘up there’
      Though it’s understandable that a European’s perception of Canada would take a detour through the USA, of Canada’s professional orchestras, only Edmonton’s (53.5461° N) is further north than Amsterdam (52.3667° N). All the others are further south.

  • Bruce says:

    I remember Canadian orchestras used to have Canadian-only auditions for vacancies. I always thought they had self-esteem issues, because most vacancies went unfilled and they had to hold “international” auditions. Surely, even back in the 80s, there were enough Canadian musicians good enough to fill the relatively small number of Canadian orchestra vacancies. I guess it is/was like the tendency of American orchestras not to hire American conductors. (Reminds me of a Beecham quote: “I don’t see why we insist on hiring third-rate conductors from Europe when we have so many second-rate conductors here at home.” 🙂 )

    I’ve stopped paying attention, but I wonder if they still do that?

    • John Rook says:

      They were until quite recently, I think.

    • Orchestral Musician says:

      Yes, Canadian orchestras hold “national” or Canadian only auditions first. If there are no Canadian candidates who are acceptable, or if a Music Director vetoes the decision, they can hold “International” auditions.

      Because of immigration laws, an employer must must make an effort to fill any vacant position with a Canadian citizen or legal permanent resident. That would be very difficult to do if every audition were open to all nationalities, especially with screened, anonymous auditions.

    • Emil says:

      They still do have Canadian auditions first (I suspect it might be a legal requirement, just like universities must prioritise Canadian citizens/residents for hiring). And it depends on the post, but a number of them get filled at the Canadian audition.

  • V.Lind says:

    We had a little more talent than your article suggests — in the 80s, Maureen Forrester was a well-established star, Teresa Stratas and Louis Quilico has come and gone, Ben Heppner was on his young way. And in your short litany of today’s international stars, I find the omission of Gerald Finley amazing. Less concerned about Measha Brueggergosman, who is undoubtedly talented but often seems to me to be doing the wrong stuff for her voice. Angela Hewitt had won a number of international competitions before the 70s were out and was well on her way to the distinction that has followed her ever since.

    There are a lot of other talented Canadians working internationally as well as at home, less famous perhaps than the superstars you name but fully employable and sought by companies everywhere — like the talent of all countries, where not everyone is Netrebko or Kaufman but many are very welcome in performance when they turn up

    You do not mention the conservatories, several of which are the key to the success of Canadian artists. And university music departments. Hewitt basically completed studies BEGUN in the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto with Jean-Paul Sevilla at University of Ottawa, and Jan Lisiecki is a product (in part) of Mount Royal College in Calgary.

    And of course there have been a few composers along the way, though I daresay your favourite is Howard Shore! (I thought his music in The Song of Names rather good).

    Your history of our immigration policy is a little confused, I think — there was a very big push for post-war immigration.

  • ronKeillor says:

    Steven Staryk, concert-master of the RPO in Beecham’s Sheherazade and Maureen Forrester – were both well-known in that period

  • MacroV says:

    While you are right to mention all the renowned Canadian musicians gracing the world’s concert halls and opera houses these days, your 1983 impression is bizarre. There probably wasn’t a North American orchestra back then that wouldn’t have made the same decision as the Toronto SO about waiving broadcast fees; plenty of other examples of unionized musicians seemingly cutting off their noses to spite their face. Within the last decade or so I recall reading (maybe even in SD) about Cleveland Orchestra musicians refusing to waive fees for a broadcast of Turangalila at the Proms – which helped scuttle their appearance entirely.

    Back in 1983 you could have driven six hours east to hear an orchestra that had recently taken the music world and record industry by storm (with many of the players not only Canadian but Quebecois, thanks to those local auditions). Vancouver native Jon-Kimura Parker was about a year from winning the Leeds Competition and embarking on a pretty major career. Louis Lortie was already doing pretty well, if I’m doing the math correctly, and Marc-Andre Hamelin was a year or two from winning his big competition (name escapes me).

    Canada’s a small country, but even in the early 1980s it was producing good music, and musicians.

    • M2N2K says:

      A “small country”?
      Actually the second largest on Earth!
      Even more available space there now – after Harry/Meghan/Archie went south.

      • MacroV says:

        I’m well aware of Canada’s geographical vastness; I was referring to population. Maybe I should have said “nation.”

      • Karl says:

        Canada’s population is small in general. Canada is 38th in the world when it comes to size by population – they have fewer than 40 million people.

        • M2N2K says:

          Population of around 38 million is not that “small”. Being “38th in the world” (according to you, but apparently 39th currently, according to “worldometers”) means that there are five times as many countries with fewer people (nearly 200 of them) as those with larger populations. There are about 7,775 million people in the world now which means that average population is 33 million per country. Therefore Canada has larger than average population – certainly not “small”. It can only be called small in relation to the country’s size. Having said all this, I must add that I do agree fully that for several decades now Canada has been producing disproportionately high number of exceptionally fine classical musicians.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Like V. Lind, I thought of Maureen Forrester (a Bruno Waltr-Mahler favorite), Ben Heppner, and Gerald Finley, a major omission. Then conductors Wilred Pelletier and Sir Ernest MacMillan; opera couple Leopold Simoneau and Pierette Alarie, Emma Albani, the Amati Quartet, and pianist Anton Kuerti, an Austrian emigre I should have though of George London but didn’t, and many others. With my own live ears I’ve heard Heppner, Gerald Finley, Marc-Andre Hamelin many times, and Glenn Gould once.

  • Barbara says:

    A very interesting article but spoiled by the last patronising paragraph. How do you know that people outside London have no urgent need/interest in culture. Perhaps it could have been better worded.

  • TT says:

    Dang Thai Son came to Canada in 1993, and only began teaching at the Universite de Montreal in 2002. He was never a professor of Charles- Richard Hamelin – he was, however, Eric Lu’s and Kate Liu’s, and taught Tony Yike Yang.