How did Edmonton get to Carnegie Hall? By thinking

By now many of you will have heard that the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra will be playing in Carnegie Hall in New York City on Tuesday night. Some will know it’s the ESO’s Carnegie debut. You may even have heard that a thousand Edmonton fans have travelled to New York to watch the orchestra strut its stuff.

This is all good news. Edmonton’s isn’t the kind of band that normally gets to play Carnegie. I’ve heard one prominent musician from another city sniff that if an Alberta orchestra gets that honour, it should be Calgary’s. But that brings me to a less-understood aspect of Edmonton’s triumph, which is that it won its Tuesday showcase fair and square, in a highly competitive environment. Therein lies a tale.

The ESO is playing as part of something called the Spring for Music festival, now in its second year. It was created by some American promoters to fight some trends in New York’s concert culture. Even though it’s one of the world’s great cultural capitals, New York can be a bit staid as a classical music town. The New York Philharmonic was, until a few years ago, a risk-averse organization that leaned heavily on the most familiar works of the most familiar composers. And out-of-town orchestras coming through Carnegie Hall would often want to show they deserved that prestigious showcase by playing the same familiar stuff by Beethoven, Mozart and the rest. Great music, but not the only music there ever was.

Spring for Music proposes a different model. Orchestras from across North America can apply to play. A jury picks the orchestras that will perform, seven per year on successive nights in May — and the only criterion is the ability to come up with an original, thoughtful, off-the-wall program of music. All seats for each concert are $25, an extraordinary bargain. Each orchestra gets a cut of the door, but nobody’s getting rich. The goal is to expand ideas of what’s possible in music.

Last year the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal was one of the Spring for Music orchestras. Kent Nagano did a thing on the evolution of the idea of a symphony, starting with Bach and leading up to  Benjamin Britten, although he shuffled things chronologically so the concert ended with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. (So you see this isn’t just a festival of weird music. It’s a festival of thinking about music.)

Here’s a New York Times article about the orchestras in this year’s festival, which began tonight, Monday. You get a sense of the variety on offer. But I was especially tickled by the ESO’s choices when I heard about them a year ago.

Music director Bill Eddins — an American — proposed a concert of music by the orchestra’s recent composers-in-residence, which means the Carnegie audience will be hearing music written within the past decade by three Canadians, Robert Rival, John Estacio and Allan Gilliland. Here’s how the program sounded to the Globe’s man during a preview concert in Edmonton the other night.

I’m aware of a concert of Canadian music that the Canadian government bankrolled at Carnegie in the 1950s. I don’t believe three new Canadian compositions have been featured in that hall in the half-century since, and this time it’s not government-funded; it’s a program of music proposed by an American conductor and selected by an American jury, in competitive circumstances, strictly on its merit, fair and square. Some of the leading advocates of Canadian music are foreign-born conductors — Bramwell Tovey in Vancouver, Eddins in Edmonton, Edwin Outwater in Kitchener, Nagano in Montreal — who simply like the stuff. Tomorrow will be  a good night for an orchestra that takes chances.

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