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Kronos Quartet, Tanya Tagaq, Brad Mehldau Among 21C Music Festival Performers

21C Music Festival 2016

Today The Royal Conservatory announced another diverse collection of concerts for the 21C Music Festival, returning for a third season from May 25 to 29. This year, Executive Director of Performing Arts Mervon Mehta has expanded the sonic palette of the festival while attracting internationally acclaimed performers such as the Kronos Quartet, Brad Mehldau, James Ehnes, and Tanya Tagaq. We caught up with Mervon in advance of the announcement to explore how the festival has managed to evolve without losing sight of its mission: to stretch the ears of concertgoers through mostly 21st century music.

In a nutshell, what sets apart this season of 21C from previous seasons?

As the festival approaches its third season it’s expanding, both in the terms of the range of genres we present and the calibre of artists we attract—artists are now coming to us.  However, the aesthetic of the festival hasn’t changed; we’re presenting newly-minted music but we’re not pigeonholing any of it into a specific genre. This is music being composed today, for today’s audiences, and it comes in many shapes and sizes.

The Kronos Quartet is a great example of the kinds of artists 21C is now attracting. Tell us more about how that relationship developed.

The quartet first played in Koerner Hall in 2011; they love the hall and were keen to perform here again. When they heard about 21C they asked us to be a part of their Fifty for the Future project. The project involves a global consortium of commissioners including Carnegie Hall and Wigmore Hall – we’re the only Canadian presenter – that will give birth to 50 new pieces of music for string quartet, written by composers from around the world. One of the first composers they chose was Tanya Tagaq. I’ve been a huge fan of hers, so I made sure that as part of the project she would join the Kronos Quartet in Koerner Hall to perform her newly-minted work: a quintet for string quartet and throat singer.

Your work with the Kronos Quartet is just one example of The Royal Conservatory’s expanded efforts to commission new works. Tell us a bit more about those efforts.

Every year we’ve commissioned or three or four pieces, many by Canadian composers, and we’re increasingly adopting more of a partnership model, getting involved in consortia like Fifty for the Future. Our work with Brad Mehldau is another example of that shift. Brad loves Koerner Hall and our audience and was seeking out a Toronto partner for his own commissioning project. He’s a great fit because he’s an incredible jazz artist who is accustomed to crossing boundaries—at his concert he’ll be playing pieces from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier alongside solo piano pieces based on Bach.  

How did James Ehnes become involved with 21C? He isn’t necessarily associated with new music. 

James has never shied away from new music; he approached us because he’s interested in including contemporary works in his recitals. He’ll perform three new pieces with pianist Andrew Armstrong, including the Toronto premiere of a new work for piano and violin by conductor and Honorary Fellow Bramwell Tovey. The concert will also feature core classical repertoire, including Beethoven’s gorgeous Spring Sonata. I think it’s perfect for the ears of audience members to hear works by Beethoven and Handel interspersed with contemporary compositions by Aaron Jay Kernis or James Newton Howard—they will hear all of those pieces in a new way.

As ever, many Royal Conservatory faculty members, students, and alumni are listed among the featured composers and performers. Describe the importance you ascribe to including them on the roster.

Quite simply: we have a wealth of talent here. Faculty member Brian Current, who is also the festival’s artistic advisor, has helped me identify the many students – not to mention performing artists and composers – who deserve to be heard. Brian will be conducting the JAPAN: Next concert, which features Continuum Contemporary Music performing works by Japanese composers.

Students and faculty feature prominently in three other shows. In After Hours: Blackout, we will bring audience members into the Conservatory Theatre in complete darkness for performances by the Element Choir, Radiant Brass Ensemble, and several mystery guests. The afternoon Cinq à Sept show includes performances by faculty member Barry Shiffman and alumna Andréa Tyniec, and features a world premiere by Rodney Sharman dedicated to the late mathematician and arts patron James Stewart. Alumnus Raphael Weinroth-Browne and his ensemble The Visit join Brooklyn-based trio Dawn of Midi and composer Jherek Bischoff for a Koerner Hall concert colliding indie rock, jazz, and orchestral music.

From day one, the programming vision for this festival has been to present varied artists back-to-back over the course of several days so audience members can come to many concerts without feeling like they’re seeing the same show over and over again. We want concertgoers with eclectic musical tastes to find a variety of events they’ll enjoy.

The Royal Conservatory thanks Michael and Sonja Koerner for their support of 21C.

Tickets and festival passes go on sale January 22. To purchase, visit performance.rcmusic.ca.

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Executive Director of Performing Arts Mervon Mehta offers insights into the third season of the 21C Music Festival, our annual celebration of newly-minted music.