Adapting Concerts for a Broader Audience

Orchestra on stage with a full audience
Photo Credit: J.J. Gill

As a way of opening up their concert halls to a greater number of people in their communities, several Canadian orchestras have produced Relaxed Performances. Last year, we shared resources from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Let’s Dance concert. On November 1st, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (WSO) produced their first relaxed performance, as part of a matinee concert series. This ‘blended’ concert was designed to be performed for two audiences at the same time: the WSO’s regular matinee audience, and to new concertgoers seeking a less exigent, more relaxed concert experience.

What is a relaxed performance?

A relaxed performance is designed specifically for audiences who would benefit from a more relaxed sensory experience at a concert. They might include parents with babies and toddlers, people on the autism spectrum, or people with sensory communication disorders or learning disabilities.

Usually these concerts are added as a special event to an orchestra’s activities, but the WSO decided instead to adapt an already-scheduled concert. The education team started working on this in Spring 2019, and took advantage of partnerships they already had in the community. These partnerships proved valuable in providing an experience that was accessible to as many people as possible. Most significantly, the concert environment was supported by volunteers experienced with sensory-friendly events and environments, students and faculty from the music therapy program at Canadian Mennonite University, and faculty from Prelude Music, a music studio specializing in musical instruction for neuro-diverse individuals and those with sensory challenges.

Getting Ready

Image of the cover of the Relaxed Concert Guide: "I will be attending a Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra Concert"Preparing for this concert was more complex than usual. The team at the WSO created two new documents to help prepare people attending: a pre-visit guide, and a concert experience guide. These documents were created by and in consultation with individuals who were close to the WSO, and have worked with or been a caregiver for someone on the spectrum. Through the pre-visit guide, potential audience members are walked through what to expect from transportation to the venue until arrival at one’s seat. The concert experience guide prepares people for what to expect during the concert itself, and lists some of the amenities available to them, including fidget objects, colouring activities and reserved spaces for a more or less intense experience (at the very front or back of the hall).

The WSO offered free tickets to select community groups through their Share the Music program, but the majority of tickets were purchased as for a usual matinee performance.

Regular matinee subscribers received an email and a physical mailing, to inform them that this concert would be different to their usual matinee experience. WSO staff also briefed the guest conductor and musicians before the first rehearsal for the relaxed concert.

According to Education & Community Engagement Manager, Brent Johnson, anticipation was high leading up to the concert. How would regular patrons react? Would people find the relaxed element of the concert welcoming? Was this concert too different from the usual experience?  Not different enough?

Concert Day

Photo of two volunteers in the lobby of the hall before the concert“As soon as the doors opened, there was a different feeling in the air,” Johnson said.  For the approximately 600 audience members, there was a real excitement that this concert was bringing new people to the symphony who may have experienced barriers in accessing this music before.

Volunteers were critical to the success of the event. Faculty and students from Canadian Mennonite University and volunteers with appropriate experience from the Royal Manitoba Theatre were on the ground to help people find what they needed. There was no self-identification by people who were there specifically for the relaxed elements of the concert. With many spare spaces in the hall, and reserved seating right at the front and back, audience members were encouraged to move around as required, and to respond to the music as they would like (clapping, moving or vocalizing for example). A separate quiet room was provided upstairs, with fidget objects, activity books and weighted blankets for those who chose to use them. The house lights were also brought up to half throughout the performance.

Next Steps

The process of producing this concert allowed the WSO team to investigate what is and isn’t working for patrons in their venue. They identified a handful of things that might be creating barriers for anyone attending concerts. For instance, the WSO is planning to expand the FAQ and accessibility information on their website and in pre- to ensure that all patrons feel welcome, ready and excited to be at the symphony!

Given the WSO’s intense schedule, the WSO team plans to continue to refine the ‘adapted’ concert model. The pilot version of this model was highly successful, and with careful concert selection, the WSO will offer three relaxed concerts in 2020-21. To access the resources from November’s concert, follow the links below.


The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra presents its next relaxed concert at a February 21st matinee: Hétu & Franck. Learn more about their relaxed concert series on their website.

Chaakapesh: collaborations, language and voice

OSM musicians performing a concert
Photo Credit: Jean-Marc Abella

In September 2018, the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) and Music Director Kent Nagano toured to Indigenous communities across Northern Quebec. The featured work on this tour was a new chamber opera entitled Chaakapesh, the Trickster’s Quest.

The opera tells the story of Chaakapesh, a trickster who sets out to stop the massacre of his people by white settlers through teaching these settlers to laugh. The OSM engaged renowned Cree writer Tomson Highway as librettist, and Matthew Ricketts, a young Canadian living in New York, as composer. The work features narrators in one of five languages (Cree, Innu, Inuktitut, French or English, depending on the place of performance), and two singers to tell this story of the founder of the Innu people. Funded in part by a New Chapter grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, the collaboration began with discussions in 2016 and culminated two years later with the tour. 45 OSM musicians participated in this tour, marking the first time in ten years that the orchestra has visited Nunavik, and the first time ever in Cree and Innu territory.

Film-makers Roger Frappier and Justin Kingsley created a documentary about the multiplicity of collaborations brought about from this project, also titled Chaakapesh. The documentary, which premiered in Montreal in December 2019, includes extended sequences of performances, rehearsals, and interviews with people involved in the project, including the creative team, Maestro Nagano, the narrators and singers who performed the work, and OSM staff and musicians.

Indigenous Voices and Indigenous Performers

“There’s a difference between sharing and stealing”

Inuktitut performer playing the traditional drum
Photo Credit: Jean-Marc Abella

Chaakapesh gives significant space to Indigenous voices and performers. With the opera translated into five different languages, different narrators are needed for each performance. In the documentary, each of the Indigenous narrators gets extended interview time to delve deep into their experiences as artists and people, inside and outside of this specific collaboration.

We also see Indigenous community members throughout the creation and rehearsal process, involved in conversations and making creative decisions. The collaborative aspect of this project continues into the tour itself, where we see a range of Indigenous performers on stage, including an advanced local cello student playing a Bach suite, a traditional fiddler and throat singers. Their performances were built into the opera, and were different at each presentation depending on which musicians the OSM had access to in each community. As Cree narrator Ernest Webb says, “there’s a difference between sharing and stealing”. In Chaakapesh, we see the OSM sharing the stage with Indigenous performers and sharing the rehearsal process with Indigenous artists.

Stories and Language

“So that our children can inherit something other than prejudice”

Young child conducts a string quartet of OSM musicians
Photo Credit: Jean-Marc Abella

There is a strong story-telling element to many of the interviews in the documentary. Innu narrator Florent Vollant speaks of being taken from his home in Labrador to a residential school when he was only five years old. Inuktitut narrator Akinisie Sivuarapik reminds us that tuberculosis is still present in some Indigenous communities. Though there is a hopefulness to Chaakapesh, the film also reminds us that these stories of trauma are not problems of the past, but issues that are still very present to this day.

Language takes pride of place in both the opera and the documentary. The fact that the opera is presented in no fewer than three Indigenous languages is testament to this. The geography of this project is also significant: in a province where the struggle between French and English can be so strongly felt and politicized, it is easy to forget that there are a number of languages that existed here long before either of Canada’s official languages.

What now?

This project is an important step in furthering collaborative partnerships between arts organizations and Indigenous communities. It was an enormous, successful, very public collaboration, but the real test of this kind work is what sort of ongoing partnerships can be made between these groups. Sustained funding is needed to help orchestras and other arts organizations create meaningful, lasting partnerships that are beneficial to Indigenous communities and enable these communities to celebrate their own art forms, cultural experiences and traditions.

Indigenous and OSM musicians performing a concert
Photo Credit: Antoine Saito

This project was life-changing for the OSM as well. Head of Special Artistic Projects, Marc Wieser, says, “This project was a watershed moment for the OSM in collaboration with Indigenous artists and communities. All genuine relationships begin with trust, and Chaakapesh was a catalyst that has allowed us to build relationships with a growing network of Indigenous artists in Montreal and Quebec. As an organization we learned the value of taking artistic risks and of stepping outside of our comfort zone. We have since collaborated with several of the same artists, among others, and found we were able to go straight to the music, having already established terms of mutual trust. In summer 2019 we produced a concert called Makusham, in which three OSM musicians paired with three Indigenous singer-songwriters and an arranger to collaboratively create a concert where the Indigenous musicians took the artistic lead. The concert was a huge success, and it would have been unimaginable without all the “footwork” of Chaakapesh to back it up. We now feel welcomed and well-perceived by many Indigenous communities, and have the opportunity to build on our experience and continue our collaborations.”

Chaakapesh doesn’t claim to have all the answers for reconciliation between colonizer and colonized, Indigenous and settler communities. As Florent Vollant mentions during one of his documentary interviews, it will take several generations of hard work, sustained partnerships, and thoughtful collaboration to move these conversations forward. This is an important step.

Upcoming screenings, and short clips from the Chaakapesh documentary can be found on the OSM website.

The Opera Chaakapesh will be staged again as part of the OSM’s Classical Spree Festival in August 2020. Tickets on sale from February.

Member Spotlight: Music4Life String Orchestra

Orchestras Canada’s member orchestras range in size from fully professional ensembles, to smaller regional orchestras, to community groups working with enthusiastic amateur musicians. The Music4Life String Orchestra is one such community group.  Based in Ajax, Ontario. Music4Life’s orchestra currently has over 30 string musicians, including four professional section leads who act as mentors and teachers to the rest of the ensemble. The orchestra members range in age from 8 to 78 years old, making for an unusual but beneficial social and musical experience for all involved.

Many community orchestras have professional musicians among their ranks. The extent of their participation varies, from having only a professional concertmaster, to having five professional principal strings, to engaging professional principal musicians in all sections to work alongside community musicians. While Music4Life’s employing a professional conductor and musicians in itself is not unusual, the way in which it is framed is. The orchestra uses the side-by-side professional/amateur experience and in-rehearsal teaching as a particular point of interest to current and prospective community musicians.

The community musicians benefit from having a professional conductor and section leaders present throughout the rehearsal and performance process. Although some of these musicians have private teachers, for many, orchestra rehearsal is the only chance they have for further instruction on their instrument. Seating is rotated at each rehearsal so that each musician gets a chance to sit next to their section leader, and break times are viewed as opportunities for further informal and social exchanges between professional and amateur musicians. The Music4Life arrangement provides an excellent collaborative and supportive environment for all and is a complement to traditional private lessons.

For the professional musicians, this is an opportunity to share their musical knowledge and to reach a wider number of musicians in the community. The group’s professional and advanced musicians are given opportunities to play paid gigs in string quartet/quintet arrangements for public and private events. Proceeds raised from these performances are directed back into the operation of the non-profit orchestra. The side-by-side nature of the Music4Life String Orchestra is one that supports exchange between professional and amateur, and young and old, in a way that benefits the musical experience of all involved.

Music4Life’s next concert is on December 7th at Forest Brook Community Church. Under the musical direction of Kathryn Knowles, a Toronto-based Cellist, Composer and General Manager of the Canadian League of Composers, the event will feature a collaboration with a string quartet of award-winning jazz/classical crossover musicians who will perform seasonal, classical and jazz repertoire with the orchestra. Learn more about the Music4Life String Orchestra on their website.

The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra goes Digital

Daniel Raiskin and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra

Orchestras are always looking for ways to broaden their audience and engage more deeply with them. Many orchestras cite an aging audience and the move away from specialized music education in schools as reasons for a slow but steady decline in audience sizes. In recent years, however, there has also been a trend for orchestras to want to make up for this gap in specialized music education and to appeal to a younger new audience, while fostering a deeper engagement with their current patrons.  This is done in a variety of ways from pre-concert talks to ‘Symphony 101’ type guides. In the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s case? They went digital.

To elaborate, the WSO is making use of a companion app called EnCue at three of their concerts this year, with the intention of integrating this app into more concerts in coming seasons. EnCue is a free-to-download app that sends users live, real-time program notes, images and stories during the performance. The EnCue website lists the app at $350 USD per concert, with potential discounts for multiple concerts. The WSO launched the app at their October 18th (B)eyond Classics series concert, for the performance of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. Though app-users weren’t separated from the rest of the audience, the screen is dark lit and the hall lights are brought up to avoid disturbing other patrons. This is the first example of something like this being done in Canada, though several orchestras in Europe and the United States have integrated similar technology into their concert programs. Advertising for the concert mentioned EnCue as a point of interest for prospective patrons.

RBC Resident Conductor Naomi Woo during the concert. Photo: Ruth Bonneville, Winnipeg Free Press

For Jean-François Phaneuf, VP Artistic Operations at the WSO, the benefits of the app are twofold. “We’re excited about using this app to appeal to new audiences and increase the level of engagement with current and prospective patrons. We saw some audience members who were deeply moved by the experience. You get to read about Rachmaninov’s thoughts when writing his work and Music Director Daniel Raiskin’s personal connection to a special passage while hearing it all unfold on stage in front of you.” Over the course of two months, Jean-François Phaneuf, James Manishen, Artistic Associate and RBC Assistant Conductor Naomi Woo worked hard to prepare the necessary materials. They tested their content among musically-educated and non-musically-educated WSO staff, and found that short slides (5 seconds to read) and images helped to keep people listening actively. The learning curve for programming the app was steep, but with satisfying results; basic concepts were explained for those unfamiliar to orchestral music, and more complex ‘tidbits’ of information were provided for experts. During the concert, Naomi Woo was backstage with the score, synchronizing the slides with the music for the approximately 200 patrons that downloaded the app. The response from app users was generally positive. By and large, patrons were excited to try something new. Some concertgoers expressed resistance to changes to the concert experience they know and love, but many felt a greater understanding of, and deeper connection with the music through the new information they were given.

There is no intention from the WSO to use EnCue at all of their concerts. It is planned only three times this season for one piece per program. WSO audiences will next see EnCue at the closing concert of the New Music Festival in January, for Michael Daugherty’s Metropolis Symphony and during Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6 in March. There are plans to integrate EnCue into the second half of every concert for their (B)eyond Classics concert series in 2020-21. With a tech help desk in the lobby at the October 18th concert, most technical challenges were avoided. More studious patrons also requested receiving the slides in advance to ‘study up’ for the concert. Both the WSO and Orchestras Canada are excited about the opportunities presented by giving a wider audience more ways to open the door and access orchestral music in a way that enhances what is presented on stage.

Learn more about the question of digital technology in the orchestral industry by reading our interview with The Space’s Fiona Morris on building a digital organization.

Music As Community Medicine at the Windsor Symphony Orchestra

Musicians from the Windsor Symphony Orchestra visited community and health venues between October 1st and 10th as part of their Music for Health outreach program. Last year this program included 21 performances to more than 1200 seniors in and around Windsor.

The Music for Health program is an important part of the Windsor Symphony Orchestra’s commitment to the Windsor-Essex community.  This year’s edition included visits to Hospice Windsor, the Windsor Public Library, Downtown Mission, and senior’s retirement and care centres across Windsor-Essex, delivering beautiful music to those who would otherwise be unable to attend a mainstage performance.

The program is based upon the growing body of evidence that shows the positive impact music has on mental, emotional, and even physical health.  Developed by two WSO musicians who have worked very closely with local music therapists in hospital settings, this program features performances by WSO string quartets and quintets at rest homes, retirement homes and social service agencies across Essex County. Clients are encouraged to participate in the performances using small hand percussion (provided by the WSO), selecting works that the ensemble will perform, as well as sharing memories and recollections evoked by the performance. Learn more on the Windsor Symphony Orchestra’s website.

Youth Month and the 80th edition of the OSM Competition

Youth Month

Since its beginnings, the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal has kept education at the centre of its mission, and has continued to develop new initiatives for engaging young people in classical music. One can think back to the Youth Concerts that were started in 1935 by Wilfrid Pelletier, or to more recent examples such as La Musique aux enfants and the Children’s’ Ball, a gala event that supports educational activities at the OSM and keeps these activities accessible for all.

Continuing the momentum from these initiatives, in November 2019 the OSM will be running a Youth Month dedicated to the many programs offered by the OSM to young musicians, schools and families. The public will be able to discover rising classical music stars during a series of recitals, or to attend the first concert in the Children’s Corner concert series, conducted by the OSM’s new assistant conductor Thomas Le Duc-Moreau. School-aged children will be able to make the most of new freely available educational resources, including (for the first time) the publication of a video of a youth concert filmed at professional standard. Learn more here.

The OSM Competition

Since 1940 the OSM has presented the OSM Competition, Canada’s most prestigious performance competition for young musicians, offering prizes worth more than $100,000 in value to its winners, as well as significant visibility on the international stage. The OSM invites the public to discover 17 violinists and cellists aged between 15 and 25 during the semi-finals and final rounds, which will take place from November 27th to 30th in Montreal. All competition events are webcast to allow for nationwide coverage of the competition. The OSM presents a rich and varied program to competitors and public alike; concerts with previous competition winners, training activities with industry experts, and musical activities at the Maison Symphonique and throughout the city are all part of the competition’s busy schedule. Competitors will benefit from an international jury consisting of, among others, the OSM’s musical director Kent Nagano, and the director of the BBC Proms in London, David Pickard.

Competition winners receive enormous support from the OSM. In addition to cash prizes and scholarships, many have developed a special relationship with the orchestra; the OSM has offered many competition winners the opportunity to perform as soloists, recitalists or chamber musicians with OSM musicians. Kent Nagano also conducts an orchestra of past competition winners during the summer Classical Spree festival. In addition, the OSM fosters partnerships between competition winners and its own artistic partners and international guest artists: an important step for early-career artists.

The orchestra is very proud of the OSM Competition due to the number of ways in which it has enriched the Canadian music scene. Among the winners, many have excelled on the Canadian and international stage, including James Ehnes (violin), Angela Hewitt (piano), Louis Lortie (piano), Karina Gauvin (soprano), Jan Lisiecki (piano), Jonathan Crow (concertmaster, Toronto Symphony), Andrew Wan (OSM Concertmaster), and more recently Timothy Chooi, Blake Pouliot, Carter Johnson and Kerson Leong.

Guest Blog: Playing it Forward

Meeting with young people and making music ever more accessible are priorities for the Orchestre Métropolitain. Each year, the OM sparks wonder in more than 11,000 young people across Montreal through an educational program with two initiatives: The OM at School and Playing it Forward.

The OM at School provides an opportunity for meaningful encounters between students and musicians, in the form of workshops held in schools, and by welcoming school groups to rehearsals and concerts. Last December, the art works of some 15 kindergarten students at École Notre-Dame-des-Neiges embellished the foyer of the Maison symphonique. The students, who attended the dress rehearsal, were able to see their works on display, and to present one as a gift to conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. In preparation for the outing, the students had learned about Schumann’s Piano Concerto, one of the works on the program, and were paid a visit by the OM’s artistic partner, conductor Nicolas Ellis, who answered their questions.

Playing it Forward aims to provide a forum for young musicians and to support their development through mentoring, master classes and other activities. The OM Preludesmusical performances given by young and talented musicians as a prologue to OM concerts, is an example. The young performers then attend the concert free of charge and a few have the privilege of presenting flowers on stage to the conductors and soloists we welcome. Another Playing It Forward project is the creation of the OMNI competition. Devoted to young musicians between 7 and 17, the competition gives entrants the chance to display their talent in a relaxed setting that encourages connections between young people who share the same passion, and discussion with professional musicians. These initiatives are inspiring, not only for the young people involved but also for the OM musicians, who find them a source of great pride.

Thank you to Laura Eaton at the Orchestre Métropolitain for guest blogging for us.

Guest Blog: Ontario Resonance Mentorship Program at Esprit Orchestra

Esprit Orchestra’s Ontario150 Community Celebration Program, Ontario Resonance, engaged, nurtured, and promoted a young group of composers, musicians, and students in a project that created awareness of Ontario as a vibrant place to live through new orchestral compositions combined with innovative explorations in sound. Esprit engaged a group of Ontario emerging composers and partnered them with different student groups, fostering new relationships with and between locales and communities. The emerging composers mentored students to create pieces – often their first compositions for orchestra – which celebrated and reflected Ontario’s places and spaces, environments, and communities. At the same time, the mentor composers composed their own new works, creating a cascade-like process wherein writing their own works was taking place at the same time as guiding young student composers in their composing. Ontario’s heritage was highlighted by music portraying human activity, ethnic cultures, natural environments, cityscapes, and historic buildings. Esprit Orchestra musicians were hired to act as mentors with each student group, providing valuable one-on-one mentoring with student musicians and composers and their teachers, as well as performing alongside student musicians to enhance the experience for the program participants.

Esprit Orchestra in concertOntario Resonance ran from September to November of 2017, culminating in seven performances in schools and venues across the GTA, with student compositions performed by a combination of student performers and professional Esprit musicians. The mentors’ works were showcased in an all-pro finale concert at Trinity St. Paul’s Centre on November 23, 2017 – a high energy ending to the program with a full audience in attendance.

The Ontario Resonance program created a way for artists to serve the province’s population in an imaginative, meaningful, and lasting way. It encouraged recognition of and reflection on the places where people live and environments and communities they are surrounded by. Newly created compositions by high school students and mentoring composers, all written and premiered throughout the program, now exist as souvenirs of their experience. Inspired young composers and student musicians, with their pieces having real purpose, are now encouraged to continue pursuing projects of similar nature as they navigate their studies and move forward into adult life.

All participating parties in Ontario Resonance – mentoring composers, teachers, student composers and musicians, Esprit staff and musicians, recording engineers, volunteers, and audience members – have commented on what a creative, and engaging way the project celebrated Ontario’s 150th anniversary year. Esprit is grateful to the Government of Ontario for their support of this enriching, unique project.

Thank you to Amber Melhado at Esprit Orchestra for guest blogging for us.