As Michael Sweeney, principal bassoon for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, tells it, his choice to play the bassoon was a direct result of his unconventional outlook as a teenager.
“When I was in grade school, there weren’t a lot of resources,” Sweeney says. “I was actually just looking at the photos of instruments on paper. That’s how we had to decide. The oboe, quite frankly, didn’t look that different than the clarinet. But the bassoon looked so different, exotic even.”
Thus Sweeney made his decision about his pursuit of instrument largely on looks. “That was it for me! I had no idea what it sounded like.”
He was also struck by the German word for bassoon: fagott.
Given that strange bit of linguistic trivia, Sweeney doesn’t necessarily see a lot of truth to the age-old stereotype of gay men’s attachment to classical music. “You know, I tend to avoid generalizations,” Sweeney, who’s been with the TSO since 1989, says. “There are two regular concert attendees who come to the symphony. They are two men who attend in drag, though I believe one may be trans. They’re here a lot. But when I look at our audiences, they are extremely diverse. We have everyone at the symphony. A lot of gay people are very enthused about classical music, but so are a lot of straight people.”
As for the idea that being a professional musician has some kind of cachet within the gay community, Sweeney says with a laugh, “I meet gay people who are completely unimpressed that I’m with the symphony.”
When pressed, Sweeney argues that, if not specifically queer, there is something alternative about symphonies and the appreciation of music. “Orchestras provide an alternate way of knowing, understanding, appreciating and enjoying the world of ideas, emotions and sensations . . . it’s another language. Neurologists say that the area of the brain that processes music doesn’t do anything else. Think about it: you don’t meet people who don’t like music of any kind. That area of the brain wants to be delighted. The melody of classical music from the 18th century stimulates our intellect and our emotions at the same time. So much art is about rousing either our intellect or our emotions. Music is about stimulating both.”
Must-see TSO concerts this fall:
Rufus Wainwright with Orchestra, Fri, Oct 11
La Wainwright will perform an eclectic mix of ditties, everything from his first opera, Prima Donna, to his orchestral setting of five Shakespeare sonnets. He’ll also be belting out some of his delicious faves, including “Over the Rainbow,” “Vibrate,” “Oh What a World” and “If I Loved You.”
Cirque de la Symphonie, Tues, Oct 15 & Wed, Oct 16
Conductor Steven Reineke is famous for his fusion of contemporary pop with classical virtuosity. He is known for wearing all-white suits while conducting evenings filled with ABBA music, and he has been as outspoken about his experiences coming out as he has about the music he’s committed to. This year he leads the orchestra in selections from popular classics, ranging from Bizet to Wagner, to which acrobats, contortionists, dancers, jugglers, balancers and strongmen will perform.
Benjamin Britten, sung by Nicholas Phan, Thurs, Oct 31–Sat, Nov 2
This year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten, one of the 20th century’s most celebrated composers and a reputed chaser of young, attractive men. The TSO will fete Britten with a number of concert performances of his work, in this case by the terribly handsome tenor Nicholas Phan, notorious for his love of Britten. The program also includes Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.