“We have an opportunity here, let’s try something different.” ~ Eric Paetkau

Pay-What-You-Can at Group of 27 Orchestra


This Friday at Trinity-St-Paul’s Centre (427 Bloor Street West), artistic director Eric Paetkau and the group of twenty-seven orchestra round out their first official season with “DIY Symphony”, a pay-what-you-can evening of spontaneity where audiences can mix and match movements from a “playlist” of symphonies that will be sight-read by seasoned and young musicians on the spot.

While this group has a deep reverence for the traditions of classical and orchestral music, g27 is re-imagining the symphonic experience. The members perform regularly with the likes of Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Canadian Opera Company and other major ensembles. However, when they are with the g27, they get to try out new ideas for audience engagement, and play some of their favourite orchestral music that audiences rarely get to hear in performance.

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The seed for g27 as a musical project was planted when Paetkau was putting together the requisite video for applying to conducting programs in Europe.

“Just from that initial little 2-hour session, there was a certain something with all these players, and a couple of them said, ‘You know Eric, at some point you have to get us all back together.’”

When Paetkau found himself back in Toronto seven years ago, g27 began to take shape, putting on one concert at a time. It wasn’t until the fall of 2013 that they announced their first full season of four orchestra concerts, and a complementary series of 10 chamber concerts featuring members of the orchestra.

Orchestras are not light undertakings, and while you may think there are plenty of orchestras already in a city like Toronto, not everyone finds the experience accessible, and nor have those groups exhausted what orchestral music has to offer.

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“The whole idea of G27 is to fill a niche. There’s no full chamber orchestra [with strings, brass, winds, and percussion] in Toronto, aside from Tafelmusik, although it specializes in baroque and classical music, and verging on romantic.” Explains Paetkau, referring to the historical periods in Europe during which distinctive orchestral music were written.

“We’re talking all the Haydn symphonies, Mozart symphonies, early Beethoven symphonies, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, chamber symphonies, a lot of new music and a lot of forgotten repertoire that fall through the cracks because they’re too small for a big symphony orchestra.”

The artistic incentives for g27 are numerous, but the operational ones may be fewer as the funding challenges of the arts remain constant, and competition for support is only increasing. In spite of the odds, Paetkau believes that art will always find a way to come out on top.

“It’s daunting, but exciting, because you’re pushed into a position where you have to make it work. I think that if you’re pushed to that edge, if you look hard enough and you try to figure it out as much as possible, solutions do come. You have to be creative.”

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What g27 has managed to do very well is bringing together different stakeholders in the community under one united vision. I don’t believe there is a single playbook on how to merge educational outreach, artistic excellence, accessible pricing, audience engagement into an orchestra, but the willingness to break rules—and knowing why you are breaking them—is an essential ingredient to making it work.

Friday’s DIY Symphony is a prime example of this. Artistically, the concert was inspired by the musicians who always found that the first reading of a piece at rehearsal had this edge that audiences rarely experienced. Practically, this format cuts down on the rehearsal costs, and allows the orchestra to hire more musicians for a larger orchestra force at the concert itself.

“This year is our first DIY Symphony — but I’d love to make it an annual event — where quite literally there’ll be four symphonies on the player stands: Haydn’s 83rd, Schubert 5th, Beethoven 1st, and Mozart 38th. The audience gets to choose the first, second, third and fourth movement, which has to be a different composer. Each movement, separately, is going to be voted on, right there on the spot.”`

(Beethoven’s 7th Symphony will be performed in full at this concert.)

Not only will you hear from the regular members of g27, students from the Regent Park Music School will also be taking the stage with no rehearsal whenever the Mozart gets pulled up, partaking in the experience of sight-reading a live orchestral performance in front of an audience.

“We’ve got four different voting methods. We’ll probably have an applaus-o-metre, use smartphones for one of the movements, some sort of interactive thing with the audience, and for the fourth movement, it’s going to be an auction. I’m going to act as the auctioneer, and the highest bidder gets to choose.”

Under g27, Paetkau is bringing top musicians with young students onto the same stage. Canonic orchestral pieces are regularly programmed with new works, and the presentation is responsive to audience feedback. The ideas aren’t new, but the commitment to experimentation, to turning failures into insights, and to the highest artistic excellence, is a rare combination of foresight, risk-taking and execution. Art is always about the process, but the approach and makeup of g27 is one to watch closely and support wholeheartedly.

Afterall, as Paetkau says, “Someone has to be changing what we do in classical music. Not the music itself, the music’s fantastic. I mean in terms of how we present it in different ways. Nothing against a big orchestra. I love going to big Mahler symphonies, and I love to conduct them as well. But my orchestra, I think, ‘OK, we have an opportunity here, let’s try something different.’”