Ottawa's National Arts Centre Orchestra is where scores by Mozart and Brahms are illuminated with traditional precision. Just don't expect Japanese taiko drummers or turntablists to take over its season anytime soon.
But further west, those rumblings are audible and getting louder from the classical stage. Across the country, the Victoria Symphony's conductor Tania Miller eyes that line between pop and classical. Her organization has commissioned works by British Columbian composers to include DJs, rap artists and First Nations singers to perform with the orchestra. Japanese percussionists will collaborate with the Victoria Symphony as well. This is all on top of the more standard symphonic fare, the Christmas Messiah and Pops shows, and of course, lots of music by the three Bs.
Kent Nagano's Montreal Symphony Orchestra also stocks its season with popular favourites. But it peppers its programs with post-tonal scores and edgy guest conductors like Walter Boudreau, who usually operate on music's periphery, among the avant-garde circles.
Just goes to show: there's more than one way to run an orchestra in the 21st century.
Ottawa's orchestra is a bit on the conservative side, sticking with the more classic classical. Musical director Pinchas Zukerman is cautious of gimmicks.
"There are Mozart orchestras today wearing powdered wigs when they perform and that's all nonsense," he says. "Or maybe you think people will listen if your hair is spiked up. That's fine, but it won't get you a wider audience."
Now 60, Zukerman has his set perspective. He's one of the best violinists ever recorded, and almost nobody is qualified to debate him.
But Victoria's Miller, just 37, is hosting a very different kind of party.
Her approach draws more freely from the world around her. Victoria's concert season even includes the comedy of Joe Trio, a chamber group that brings laughs by incorporating famous music, including tunes from Star Trek and the old Hockey Night in Canada theme.
"Music has to reflect current culture, and open itself to popular trends," she says. Her impresario's approach isn't much different from the public recital tradition of the 19th century, when concerts were often more like variety shows, shamelessly attempting to draw the biggest crowd. The music itself was only as important as the promise of something different, or the performer's romantic glamour. That's part of the reason why piano wizards like Chopin and Liszt were so outwardly sexy, to draw in the ladies with their frowning escorts in tow.
To Zukerman, artists should do what they know how to do best. "I know there's room for everything musical," he says. "Each kind of music needs its audience and each audience needs its music. Mixing pop and classical depends on lots of things. Pavarotti can sing in a park with the Boston Pops, but many other things just don't work. If you take a ballet conceived on jazz, for instance, ballet dancers can't dance to it properly."
Montreal's Nagano, 56, prefers to challenge audiences with sprinklings of material by modernist masters such as Gyorgi Ligeti and Claude Vivier. He steers clear of pop influences, considering them to be a double-edged sword. "Popular culture takes what it needs at any moment," Nagano says, "which means it will also tinker with the definition of 'classical' according to its guidelines, either accurately or inaccurately."
All these artists want a realistic future for classical music, to weave it into the present and into the public imagination.
While Miller looks to the music itself for a new flexibility, her genre-blending doesn't interest Zukerman much.
"The power of the finale from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony will remain true forever," he says.
The difference in outlook between these conductors is a testimony to the issue's complexity. While splicing classical with other traditions hasn't done much to enrich classical's repertoire overall, doing so can capture the public's interest.
Musical integrity is a ticklish thing. And all these considerations bleed into the larger questions of what keeps good taste interesting. It's true that Beethoven was great. But that's not the same as saying we want to hear his music every night and be uplifted in that soul-expanding way.
Zukerman works around this problem by getting his performances right, playing the classics he knows and loves with great attention to detail and direction. But even then, it can be difficult in this Information Age to settle into the right listening zone to enjoy a good classical show.
On the other hand, in Victoria, having a First Nations Chief narrate part of a new score that integrates native and classical music can smack of overreach.
When these elements come together successfully, the result is an aural adventure. But anyone who's sat through a West Coast sound event like this one knows the concert's success doesn't necessarily hinge on the music's quality.
However, a healthy sportive element also pervades the scene. The stage becomes a cultural laboratory where the conductor experiments in titillating inclusiveness and sometimes this approach is simply more interesting than even a great classical performance.
"Classical music's exceptional standards and what they represent are only accessible to a segment of society," saysNagano, who is himself often bold in programming the serious post-Schoenberg material that people generally avoid.
Nagano understands that no matter what, some people will regard Zukerman as curmudgeonly while others will see Miller as flighty. That sort of negativity is real and sadly immutable. A more constructive attitude, which is equally true, is that Zukerman will never fail the composers you love, and Miller won't let the classical concert experience fade into the moldering obscurity of quaintness.
These conductors all follow their own artistic vision, which cannot and should not be all things to all people.
"The important thing is to value the audience's imagination," concludes Zukerman. "This is true for all genres of creation. Casablanca will always be watched. The Pyramids of Egypt will always be breathtaking. The paintings of Michelangelo will be adored forever."