By: Meghan Yuri Young
Photography: Max Power
Mark Williams wants to bring the city’s communities to the symphony — and vice versa. To do so, the CEO of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is fostering genuine relationships, opening the doors to Roy Thomson Hall, and revitalizing programming by balancing local and historical.
If you meet Mark Williams, there’s a good chance you might mistake him for a lifelong Torontonian. As the newest CEO of The Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO), the Ohio native — who previously held the role of chief artistic and operations officer at The Cleveland Orchestra — has immersed himself in local culture through food, art, and exploration of Toronto. Along with his historical promotion as the first Black CEO of a major orchestra in North America, it’s clear Mark has a deep appreciation for the place he now calls home. It’s an appreciation that’s already seeping into the TSO’s programming and partnerships. Through intentional community efforts, Mark’s TSO is one for the people.
Meghan Yuri Young: Mark, can you share who you are and what you do?
Mark Williams: Sure! I’m the CEO of the TSO.
“At the very highest level, what that means is I support incredible artists making incredible music for an incredible city.”
One of the things I love about what I do is that I studied it as a musician, but I don’t make music anymore. So, I love when I sit in the audience and I see what the orchestra is doing, what they’re playing, how it moves me, how it moves the people around me, how it brings us all together. I get so much joy out of knowing that I’m a cog in the wheel of what makes all of that happen. I’ve always been guided by the music.
I would say the other thing about my career is that I’ve been the beneficiary of really great mentorship. I have had incredible people who saw me, who believed in me, who supported me along the way. Of course, I still have those people. You become a CEO but you absolutely do not know everything. Some days, I feel like I know less and less, so it’s great that I still have those people that I can call on. Now, I’m also in a position where I can try to be a mentor for other people or help connect them to people. I’m dropping that ladder behind me and have an opportunity to help bring other people up.
MYY: I imagine that, as the first Black CEO of a major orchestra in North America, having this mindset is incredibly impactful. How does it feel holding this position in a global city like Toronto? And how does that inform what you’re doing within the TSO?
MW: I’ve talked about this a lot and I’ve thought about it a lot. The answer I’m going to give you is different than anything else I’ve ever said because I think I’ve changed since being here. The words that came to me immediately as you were asking that question is, it’s an honour.
Part of why it’s an honour is that I have been so moved by the energy that has surrounded my appointment here in Toronto. People who are not connected with the orchestra have met me, and they’re so excited that a Black man is running the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. It’s an opportunity for people to see themselves. Even if they’re not a Black American man like me, it’s that someone who doesn’t fit the profile for a job is doing it, and hopefully, they’re succeeding. Suddenly, that means that, “Yeah, maybe I can do that.”
When I think about how that affects my work, I think of a great team as a bouquet of flowers. [The flowers are] each beautiful in their own way. I love a riot of colours and textures. It makes a better bouquet. I think of my team in the same way: This diversity of background, of opinion, of thought, of beliefs will make us better. I just bring a different perspective, and that’s one of the many perspectives helping to guide our institution.
MYY: I have to tell you, my mom is going to be so jealous that I interviewed the TSO’s CEO. She listens to classical music daily, and she even put herself through piano lessons a few years ago.
MW: Many people who come to the symphony, who love what we do, are also people who make music in some way. I think that if you have made music with your hands, with your voice, with your body, you somehow are in communication with our musicians.
That’s why it’s so important to support education programs that get instruments in kids’ hands. It’s not just about this business of making sure there’s a future audience for what we do. We know that kids who play music test better in mathematics and have better discipline and impulse control. They’re better at teamwork and all these other things. There’s so many reasons why young people should play instruments. I’m here today because someone put an instrument in my hands when I was a kid.
MYY: What instrument?
MW: My first instrument was the clarinet. Later, I changed to the French horn. But truly, the reason I have this role is because someone believed that kids in public schools deserved to learn music. I think about the day I got a form to check whether I wanted to play an instrument as a pivotal moment in my life.
MYY: You have previously made the distinction between the orchestra as an institution and the orchestra as representing a city. How have you immersed yourself in Toronto since moving here?
MW: I’m a genuinely curious and social person, so I immediately hit the ground. “Where are the restaurants? I want to know where the bars are. I want to know where you shop. I want to know where the art is. I want to meet the people.” One of the great things about this role is that I meet tons of people. So, if you’re a curious person, you have an opportunity, almost daily, to meet someone who comes from a different background or a different sector. I’ve learned so many things because someone said, “Oh, you should go to this restaurant” or, “Did you know about this little neighbourhood?” My husband and I have been exploring quite a bit.
I also think of myself as an ambassador. I think that running and supporting an orchestra is a grassroots effort. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra — all the musicians, the staff — we are just like you. We live in your neighbourhoods. We go to the same coffee shops. We’re on the subway. Any moment I have to engage with someone and talk about what I do and what I believe in, which is the music, I take it. It’s also an opportunity to hear from real people about what they feel. Are they coming [to the symphony]? Are they enjoying it? Why aren’t they coming? What do they want to hear? What’s important to them?
“If we’re going to be Toronto’s Symphony Orchestra, we have to create and be something that couldn’t happen anywhere else.”
MYY: Has anything about this city surprised you?
MW: I was actually surprised by how open and friendly people are here. I felt really welcomed. That has not quite happened in the same way in other places. What I mean is, I’d meet people and they’d say, “You’re new here. You don’t know a soul.” I mean, really, I didn’t have a single friend in this city. And they’d say, “Oh, I know these three people that I think you would really like.” And, you know what? They followed through! Then, one of those people says, “Oh, I know someone.” And it just grows and grows and grows. You don’t find that kind of social generosity in every city.
“I really get the impression that people who live in Toronto love it, they want you to love it, and they know that if you have a community, you’ll love it.”
MYY: Speaking of reaching out, I recently read an article about the TSO’s modernization to reach younger audiences. What are your future plans?
MW: I think part of it is a mind shift. It’s also communication. A lot of people think we’re playing Beethoven. Yes, we are playing Beethoven and Beethoven’s great, and you should come hear it, but we’re also playing other things. I think some of it is shining a light on what’s actually happening and letting people in and letting them know what we’re doing.
Another part of it is being really clear about inclusion. It’s not about saying, “You’ve been a Toronto Symphony Orchestra subscriber for 50 years but we don’t want you anymore.” No.
“We want you, we love you, and you’re part of our family, but we can also invite in more people. The arms can always be wider.”
Also, how do we take the orchestra into the community more? If you’re going to be at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, [I think] Roy Thomson Hall is a perfect place to hear an orchestra but it isn’t the only place. So, how do we meet people where they are? Whether that’s with the full orchestra, whether that’s with chamber groups, I’m really curious about getting out of the Hall and into all these other little areas.
MYY: It’s amazing that the TSO is also highly aware of the idea of communities within communities.
MW: It’s about living out our values while also addressing different shades. What’s the shade of working in a community like Brampton and how can we figure out how we connect? What’s the shade when we work with the 2SLGBTQ community to make sure that they’re seen and represented in what we do? It’s complex work and it’s very subtle. But it’s so important because that’s how people feel that you, as an organization, are authentic. They can see themselves in what you do. That’s what art is all about. It’s a mirror for us.
MYY: I also love how you’re supporting the community! One example of this is a partnership with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s (CAMH), The Art of Healing. The program supports First Nations, Inuit, and Métis patients at CAMH through storytelling and musical composition. Tell me about it.
MW: It’s so wonderful because the program is really focused on how we can go from managing mental health and addiction to healing from it. Shkaabe Makwa, the Indigenous healing centre at CAMH, focuses on culturally appropriate, culturally sensitive work in that area. We have to be sensitive to and aware of the fact that our culture affects everything. It also affects how we should be treated in a medical situation. I’m not an expert on this but I think it’s wonderful that CAMH is being really mindful about how they can bring the very best service to people from all different communities.
At the highest level, this partnership is about life and life is what music is about. There are many pieces of music that encapsulate every human emotion. The work CAMH is doing with storytelling, with understanding the lives of the people that they’re trying to help heal, and the work that we’re doing at the TSO is very well aligned. Not to mention, on a regular basis in the program, clinicians, musicians of the orchestra, and composers will be working to hear people’s stories and translating them into music to create pieces that tell those stories. Of course, we’re going to play those pieces both at CAMH and at Roy Thomson Hall.
MYY: Before we wrap up, what would be your bucket list concert for the TSO?
MW: I don’t know what the program would be but I can tell you the circumstances around it. The circumstance would be a program that would attract so many people in this city that we would need to play it in the Scotiabank Arena or in an enormous stadium. Can you imagine having 30,000 people in a stadium hearing a concert? Can you imagine the energy and excitement? It’s not just about the music. Of course, the music is incredible but this is an orchestra, the quality of which everyone should hear. So, that would definitely be my bucket list concert.
Mark’s bucket list concert sounds just as incredible as the TSO’s current offerings.