A new orchestral work, composed with the help of patients at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), will premiere at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) next season.
The project, part of a multi-year partnership announced last Thursday by the two organizations, will see Métis composer Ian Cusson collaborating with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis patients at CAMH’s Shkaabe Makwa care centre to create a new symphonic work.
Cusson, along with several TSO musicians, will work with patients through a series of workshops this winter to explore composition through musical storytelling, with the goal of supporting healing and promoting mental wellness in the process. The composition will premiere at the TSO in the 2023/24 season, conducted by music director Gustavo Gimeno.
The program, called Art of Healing, marks a significant milestone in how music can be integrated into mental health patient care, while also challenging preconceived notions about who can compose music and where it can come from.
“Music serves so many purposes. It entertains us and brings us together, but I think music has the power also to heal us. So, making music one of the tools in the tool box of CAMH and to work with their patients is wonderful,” Mark Williams, CEO of the TSO, told the Star. “What I like about this program is that we’re not going to play at people. We’re working alongside the patients themselves, we’re making music with this group and then we get to share that with the wider public.”
The initiative was announced last Thursday at a midday concert featuring American cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Juno award-winning Indigenous vocalist Jeremy Dutcher, who joined Indigenous artists Rebecca Cuddy and Sarah Prosper along with members of the TSO. Bookended by performances of George Paul’s “Honour Song,” the event at CAMH’s Queen Street site was filled with singing, dancing and improvised music-making — a taste of the program that it set to launch. Ma himself, at one point, traded his cello for a double bass and jammed out on some percussion.
The event came the day after the TSO celebrated its centennial anniversary at a special gala concert headlined by Ma and Dutcher at Roy Thomson Hall. Ma, whose philanthropic work has brought him around the world, said it was “a joy” to be back in Toronto to celebrate the new partnership.
“This new partnership between the TSO and CAMH exemplifies the best of culture, at work in service of our communities. It shows us, viscerally, ‘why music matters:’ because it reminds us of all that we have in common, because it can heal, and because it gives us a way to share our greatest hopes and deepest sadnesses,” said Ma, 67.
Dr. Renee Linklater, senior director of Shkaabe Makwa at CAMH, believes it’s important that mental health care providers like CAMH explore “different healing modalities” and, for Indigenous patients, integrate traditional healing into patient care.
Shkaabe Makwa (which in the Anishinaabe language means “Spirit Bear Helper”) is the first hospital-based centre in the country that is designed to support Indigenous communities through culturally-responsive wellness initiatives.
“This opportunity we have now, incorporating drumming and singing, feels very natural for some people. But for other people, they might have felt the loss of not being able to experience their culture and these medicines because many of the people that we’re working with at CAMH have become distanced from their families and their communities,” said Linklater. “And so we’re not just supporting them as they nurture their spirit in a safe way, but also connecting them to a healing environment that can support their path to wellness.”
Though CAMH in the past has hosted classical concerts for patients and staff, this new program is a first for the hospital and is also believed to be a first for the country.
“This is about an artistic collaboration, not an artistic performance,” said Dr. David Goldbloom, a senior medical adviser at CAMH.
“For all of us, we can think of times when music has had a sublime, soothing and powerful effect on us when words of comfort or encouragement simply don’t cut it,” he said, explaining how music can be used in patient care. “Because of its wordless nature, music cuts across so many of the divides that keep us separate or removed from each other.”
Art of Healing will officially launch this winter. About 15 patients will be part of the program, meeting mostly weekly with Cusson and TSO musicians. Sitting in a circle, patients and musicians will share stories and translate those experiences into music. The material created at those sessions will form the basis of the musical composition, which will be assembled by Cusson. The program will be open to both patients with and without musical experience, Cusson said.
Both the TSO and CAMH said they are hopeful the program can be replicated and expanded beyond its first year.
For Cusson, an opera and orchestral composer who was the composer-in-residence at the Canadian Opera Company from 2019 to 2021, Art of Healing pulls together several strands in his personal life. Both of his parents worked as nurses, and his sister is a social worker. As a teenager, Cusson would volunteer to play the piano at the various health care facilities where his parents worked.
“I imagine life without music would be a terrible life. And maybe that’s a blunt way to put it, but music has been the cornerstone for me in terms of understanding what it means to be a human being,” said Cusson, reflecting on the significance of this program and its possible impact. “We turn to music for healing, comfort and to better understand our situation or experience.
“At the end of this, I hope that participants will have had a space to share their stories, be heard and hear from other people — and from those experiences to create something very special.”
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