Saskatunes: SSO, U of S redefine an evolving genre of classical music


As SSO Director Eric Paetkau says, classical music can be “high art” without being “high class” – and open to all audiences in Saskatoon.

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Saskatunes is a StarPhoenix series that examines musical genres in and around Saskatoon and Saskatchewan before Saskatoon hosts the Juno Awards in 2020.


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Quirky and old-fashioned stereotypes abound in the world of classical music. Eric Paetkau knows almost all of them.

“We’re normal people… we don’t hang around in tuxedos and tailcoats drinking champagne every night,” the conductor of the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra says with a laugh. “So many arts organizations see it for what it is now – anyone can connect with it.”

Sitting in a cafe just off Broadway Avenue on a snowy October morning, Paetkau said he saw a lot of change in Saskatoon’s classical music scene during his tenure as a conductor and artistic director of the orchestra. It’s possible, even in a city the size of Saskatoon, to sell your big gigs at TCU Place every time. Every now and then it does, or at least come closer – like with the recent gig featuring Gustav Holst’s popular sequel, The Planets.

One of the biggest challenges, as Paetkau puts it, is finding a way to connect with audiences in a coherent way – and to overcome some of the stereotypes that might leave potential new orchestra fans outside of the band. concert hall.

“There is an appetite (for classical music). There has always been an appetite. It’s just how to tap into that appetite, ”Paetkau said. “No matter how old you are, when you attend an orchestral concert… you are usually affected in one way or another. “

Between organizations like the SSO, the Saskatoon Opera, the University of Saskatchewan Music Department, and other smaller-scale ensembles across the city, there is no shortage of talent or production.


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Garry Gable, a professor in the U of S music department and an accomplished opera singer and instructor, said even the umbrella term “classical music” needs revitalization in the 21st century.

“What counts as classic is to adapt to the modern, to what is attractive, integral, important,” he said. “The gripe is that it was pseudo-intellectual stuff, but the thing, if I can flip the sentence on itself, is it’s pseudo-intellectual – it’s supposed to instill a level higher thinking… and doing some of the rest of your life is finding connections.

U of S music teacher Garry Gable (right) and his wife Kathleen Lohrenz Gable perform in the Mysterious Barricades Mental Health Awareness Concert Series at the Quance Theater on September 5, 2019.
U of S music teacher Garry Gable (right) and his wife Kathleen Lohrenz Gable perform in the Mysterious Barricades Mental Health Awareness Concert Series at the Quance Theater on September 5, 2019. Photo by Owen Woytowich /Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Gable and Paetkau agree that the term is somewhat outdated, but there is no clear alternative at this time. The biggest concern is finding a way to connect with a younger audience, as one of the most common misconceptions about the genre is that it is only for the older generation.

As Gable says, this is less and less true – and Saskatoon musicians are part of a new wave that is turning the old-fashioned definition of classical music into something different.

“Any idea that what (the U of S) is doing is pitching classical musicians… is misapplied,” he said. “I think we try to give our students the opportunity to see themselves for the way they contribute to the future, to the community.”

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The U of S has produced many music graduates who have marked an evolving musical world. Gable cites current Victoria Symphony director Tania Miller and composer Paul Suchan as prime examples. Gable has also complimented events like the Strata New Music Festival and the Ritornello Chamber Music Festival for taking the genre in new directions.


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“Saskatoon is successful in making as much variety of music as possible available to its audience,” said Gable.

For the young people of Saskatoon who want to learn to play, cellist and director of the Saskatoon Strings Bernadette Wilson said the weather has never been better.

“There are all the opportunities for children to study classical music in the city,” she said. “They have the opportunity to study any instrument that suits them.”

Wilson, who has played cello in the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra since 1979, said she remembers a time when instruments and instrument repair were virtually inaccessible.

Now, dozens of instrument-armed kids are flocking to young ensembles like the Saskatoon Strings – ensembles that almost directly power the University of Saskatchewan and the SSO, Wilson said.

“If I counted the number of string players from the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra that were previously in my string program, I would probably say it’s about a third of them… it’s all very related.

SSO conductor Eric Paetkau conducts the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra concert featuring Gustav Holst's The Planets at TCU Place in Saskatoon on October 19, 2019.
SSO conductor Eric Paetkau conducts the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra concert featuring Gustav Holst’s The Planets at TCU Place in Saskatoon on October 19, 2019. Photo by Fourni / Photo by Julie Isaac /Photography Julie Isaac

Perhaps most important is the idea that this music is fully accessible to all ages in Saskatoon, from children to young adults to adults, professional and untrained. As Paetkau said, classical music as we understand it can be “high art” without being “high class”.

“Someone who has no money can be affected just like a billionaire. It’s humanity, ”he said. “When you walk in, those walls immediately fall down. It’s not always easy – we all have preconceptions about everything… it’s just about breaking those stereotypes.


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For Paetkau, as SSO moves forward into its season, there are a lot of questions about how to make this music exciting for all audiences while still satisfying purists. Questions have been handled with aplomb so far, from the unique way the SSO has presented an old favorite in The Planets to the accommodation of Polaris Prize winner Jeremy Dutcher to his film series which included music from classics. from Disney and Star Wars.

As the definition of the genre expands, musicians across town are doing their best to prepare students, performers, and their audiences for the new era of classical music.

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