Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Royal Conservatory’s new groove

124-year-old institution shakes up its reputation as a stuffy centre for classical music

It would be perfectly understandable if the average ’mo thought of the Royal Conservatory as a strictly classical institution: conservative, refined and perhaps a little stuffy.

But with an ambitious new director calling the shots and a sprinkling of queer alternative artists, the RC seems poised to move into a whole new era of cross-genre music. Mervon Mehta took up his post as the Conservatory’s executive director last year, shortly before the company opened Koerner Hall, its posh new theatre space on Bloor St at Avenue Rd.

The booking of non-classical artists might surprise the folks who associate the Royal Conservatory with endless violin lessons.

“We really are a centre for music, not just one genre of music,” Mehta says. “We’ve clearly been a classical institution for 124 years, but we also have all sorts of other people that have come through our programs, from Diana Krall to the Barenaked Ladies to Nelly Furtado. We’ve always had people come through as students who drifted from one genre to another.”

Certainly this season’s eclectic lineup supports Mehta’s vision. Sure, there’s the expected roster of impeccable classical virtuosos, such as the ARC Ensemble and Yo-Yo Ma, but they’re rubbing shoulders with performers like Brandi Carlile, jazz vocalist Carol Welsman and Spanish superstar Concha Buika (who we’ll profile in our next issue).

Carlile will open the company’s season with a performance at Koerner Hall on Oct 6. Mehta has been a fan of Carlile’s work since his days programming for Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, and he was excited by the opportunity to book her for Toronto.

“I was really impressed,” says Mehta. “She really has a voice that’s different from other singer/songwriters.”

Carlile may not be a household name yet, but her fan base is growing quickly. Shows are beginning to sell out, and a host of musical celebrities like Sheryl Crow and the Indigo Girls are singing her praises — and, perhaps more importantly, hiring her as their opening act.

Mehta feels the Conservatory’s eclectic programming not only broadens the company’s audience but also reflects the intersection of musical tastes in younger generations.

“I don’t know about you, but I have a wide range of genres on my iPod,” he says. “I love jazz, but it’s also fun to slip in some Aerosmith from time to time. If I had to listen to only jazz vocalists for the rest of my life and nothing else, I’d slit my wrists.”