The Royal Conservatory: Passion Makes PerfectThe Royal Conservatory: Passion Makes Perfect

The Royal Conservatory:

Passion Makes Perfect

An interview with Mervon Mehta, Executive Director of Performing Arts.

The Royal Conservatory:

Passion Makes Perfect

An interview with Mervon Mehta, Executive Director of Performing Arts.

The Royal Conservatory is one of the largest, most respected music education institutions in the world. The Conservatory also offers an impressive array of concerts throughout the year, featuring diverse Canadian and international talent.

Since 2011, TD has been the title sponsor of the Conservatory’s annual jazz series, and has supported many additional concerts. This spring, the 2013-2014 TD Jazz: Celebrating Dinah & Sarah series concludes with two exciting shows at Koerner Hall (Terri Lyne Carrington’s Mosaic Project on April 26 and Kurt Elling and Denzal Sinclaire on May 10). The 2014-2015 season of TD Jazz: A Salute to the Big Bands launches October 18 with an extremely rare reunion of Rob McConnell’s Boss Brass. 

Recently, TD Music had the opportunity to speak with Mervon Mehta, Executive Director of Performing Arts at the Conservatory since 2009. Mehta, a Canadian who has also programmed for institutions such as Chicago’s Ravinia Festival and Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, has a passion for music that runs deep and wide. Mervon’s enthusiasm is infectious as he discusses the Conservatory, his approach to programming, and much more. 

TD Music: The Royal Conservatory is revered for its educational programming; please tell us a little about its relation to the institute’s music programming.

Mervon Mehta: For more than 125 years, the Conservatory has really been known as the place where people send their kids to get piano lessons, or perhaps violin or flute, and we’ve always had a small chamber music recital hall for student and faculty performances. About 20 years ago, Peter Simon, our CEO and President said ‘If we’re really going to be at the forefront and be able to compete for the best faculty and students, we need a proper performance space.’ He got it done in 2009 [with the launch of Koerner Hall]. He asked me to come home –I’m Canadian, but was working in the States– and run this place. What really appealed to me was the intersection of education with performance. They shouldn’t be two separate entities. 

There is music here 24-7. I walk in to work in the morning and there are parents with six-month-olds taking rhythmic classes; we actually launched an early childhood institute this year. By 10am, all of the strollers are gone, and our regular students move in. We have the Glenn Gould School, which is the top classical music school in Canada, but we also have the Royal Conservatory School where anybody can take lessons. On top of that, we have teaching going on all over the country through our Learning Through the Arts program. Then, of course, we added this thousand-seat jewel box of a theatre, and as we’re bringing in top artists, we try to integrate, as much as schedules allow, their leading of master classes and sessions. 

You were hired while Koerner Hall was being built. Was it always the intention that featured artists would be musically diverse?

I’m just as passionate about a jazz concert as I am South Asian classical music, German cabaret or singer-songwriters. I told the Conservatory that if they were interested in that kind of approach, I was their guy, and if they weren’t, then I wasn’t. They said ‘Yes.’ They really wanted it to be a centre of music, not strictly a centre of classical music or any one genre.

Programming of the TD Jazz series revolves around an annual theme, with “Celebrating Dinah & Sarah” as the 2013-2014 focus. Why the tribute at this point in history? 

We hadn’t really focused on jazz vocalists in our first four seasons. We’d given tributes to Dizzy, to Latin jazz, to sax players, and to Oscar Peterson. We certainly had a couple of vocalists in some of those shows, but we hadn’t really been able to focus on singers, especially female singers. It was a nice excuse that Dinah and Sarah both would have turned 90 this year. The other reason is simply that I adore Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington, two of the greatest voices of the 20th Century, and why not celebrate them? It’s not exclusively about singers, as we see in the coming show, with drummer Terri Lyne Carrington as band leader.

 Thumb dd terri lyne carrington photo by tracy love 1375194102Terri Lyne Carrington

Tell us a little about Terri Lyne Carrington and her Mosaic Project. 

I believe that the core band is Terri Lyne with Helen Sung on piano, Tia Fuller on sax, and Ingrid Jensen on trumpet. There’s actually one guy in the band, bass player Tamir Shmerling, and the vocalists joining them for this show are Nona Hendryx and Carmen Lundy. Talk about powerhouse vocalists. This will be a treat. 

Terri Lyne herself is probably one of the best jazz drummers out there. The other thing that attracted me to this project is Ingrid Jensen on trumpet. She’s a graduate of the Conservatory, and has played here before. Any chance to get Ingrid back in town, I’m happy for. It’s also great to have an almost all-female band as we pay tribute to the two ladies.

Thumb denzal sinclaireDenzal Sinclaire

May 10, it’s a different approach, with male vocalists Kurt Elling and Denzal Sinclaire. 

Denzal is someone I’ve known for about 20 years, and I know he can do justice to both ladies. As for Kurt, being from Chicago, he’s walked the same streets as Dinah Washington, played the same clubs, and I think he’s just a tremendous singer. I asked if he would consider doing something other than what he’s touring with at the moment, to do this tribute to Dinah and Sarah, and he jumped at it.

Looking ahead to the 2014-2015 TD Jazz Series, there is a big band focus. 

I love a big band, and we haven’t really done any in the first six years so it was an opportunity to do that. I didn’t want to have all big bands with a traditional sound so it’s fairly wide-ranging. 

One of the things that has really worked for us is that we’ve started each series with a Toronto-based band. When I was thinking about big bands, I said the only way I could start this is if I can call Guido Basso and company and say ‘Can we resurrect the Boss Brass?’ They don’t tour. There’s no ghost band of the Boss Brass and, in fact, Guido told me that [Boss Brass band leader] Rob McConnell, on his death bed, said ‘I never want you guys touring without me. Don’t be going out and putting kids on the bandstand that I never knew, playing my charts. Just let me go in peace.’ Guido went to Rob’s wife, told her about the idea, and asked if she’d allow them to put the band together for one night. Mrs. McConnell said ‘Yes,’ and gave us the rights to use all the charts. It’s a who’s who of Canadian jazz on the bandstand. 

From Rob McConnell’s Boss Brass to the legendary Count Basie Orchestra, Antibalas, Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project, and the Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra, it’s an adventurous approach to big band. 

It’s cheeky of me to put Antibalas in a big band series because they’re not traditional big band, but they are a large ensemble, and there’s lots of horns. It’s going to be a high energy show, and they happened to be touring with Zap Mama so to have them together is going to tear the roof off this place!

Ryan Truesdell's big band tribute to Gil Evans will also be interesting. Ryan is a relatively young guy who’s a composer and arranger. He’s like a musical archivist and loves Gil Evans. He’s searched high and low for all these arrangements, and got snippets of stuff that didn’t exist – he found one trumpet part and one clarinet part, and put things together. He also has a great band of New York session guys; it’s about 22 pieces on stage, including French horn and bassoon. I heard them in January, and was just blown away by their precision. It’s like watching jazz guys play classical music. 

What does it mean to the Conservatory to have TD’s support of shows such as these? 

These are bona fide world-class artists who expect certain fees, and the support allows us to keep our ticket prices at a lower level. If we had to do this on sales alone, we’d have to raise our ticket prices by 30 to 40 percent just to break even. Having support, whether it’s private, government or corporate, is vital to what we do. Also, TD is synonymous with jazz in Canada so it’s a natural fit. The people at TD actually like good music, which makes for a different kind of relationship than when you’re talking to someone in a marketing department who perhaps doesn’t know classical from jazz and only cares about the size of their logo. We never feel that way with TD; with them, it’s ‘How do we get more people to listen to jazz?’