As human beings, we can only achieve greatness when we cooperate. Despite this being an incredible cliché, it is also undeniably true for any civilization. While spending time with Spanish Music Director Gustavo Gimeno and American CEO Mark Williams of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, we learned that a philharmonic shows remarkable parallels to society. Notwithstanding any extraordinary virtuoso, the ensemble is only able to create the magic they all individually aspire to when everyone plays his or her part. It is in this spirit of mutual respect, with a shared obsessive passion, an open collaborative culture, and a refreshing goal for everyone to be their own person that Gustavo and Mark find the harmony that is necessary to create a new and brighter future for orchestral music in the city of Toronto.
After a career as a percussionist at the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Gustavo Gimeno became the Music Director for the Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg, a title he has held since 2015, before beginning his tenure at Toronto Symphony Orchestra just before the pandemic. Gustavo is also much sought-after as a symphonic guest conductor worldwide.
Mark Williams, on the other hand, became the new CEO of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 2022, with Gustavo’s presence being one of the important reasons to do so. The move made him the first Black person to become CEO of a major symphony orchestra in North America. Before that, he built a career of leadership in orchestra management, having held senior positions at the San Francisco Symphony and, most recently, as Chief Artistic and Operations Officer at The Cleveland Orchestra.
We sat down with both men after capturing them around the beautiful Roy Thomson Hall and the neighboring offices that form the epicenter and fertile ground where they work on their shared ambition from different ends. While wearing their elegant, curated collections of quietly luxurious pieces, we speak about their personal journeys – how they got to where they are today, where their paths crossed before Toronto, and how they help each other to achieve their individual goals. In the exact same fashion an orchestra works as a whole.
Gustavo, what is your earliest memory of classical music?
G: I don’t remember one thing in particular, simply because my father was a musician. I was born with music around me. There was always music at home when he was teaching and playing LPs. What I do remember clearly is going with my mother to my father’s concerts. And seeing him after the concert. There was also a lot of music in the streets of Valencia. The culture of the traditional wind bands, that is also a very early memory.
Asking me this question is like asking me my first memory of eating food: I don’t have it because it was always part of my life from the very beginning. I just grew up with music in the most natural way. There is also a strong childhood memory of Mahler and Mozart, because my father was studying it and he would play them. Funny enough, there was a Philips LP that featured the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink. I remember studying that LP as a child and reading that very long name “Concertgebouworkest” – it was very fascinating to me.
What about your earliest memory, Mark?
M: Music has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. From listening to R&B, soul, and reggae at home to listening to gospel in church, mostly with my grandmother. But my first real memory of classical music is Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9. In the fourth grade, I had just started playing clarinet and we played the simplified version of “The Last Movement.” It made me think of the movie Jaws, which was fairly popular at that time, and I became obsessed with it. I convinced my parents to buy me the tape and expected to hear something familiar, but there were three movements of the piece before I got to the last movement with the famous theme. Basically, a whole new world opened up to me that I couldn’t have imagined.
I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, in a not particularly religious household; however my grandmother was a religious woman who grew up in Georgia as a Southern Baptist. And I remember going to church with her and always being extremely moved by the music. In retrospect, I was also moved by the sheer talent of these musicians. It was the type of church where people would burst into improvisations and that just takes an extraordinary level of skill. Similar to the level of skill I deal with now in the orchestral world.
How did you end up playing the clarinet and the French horn?
M: I must have been 8 years old, and I was given the choice to play an instrument: brass, woodwinds, or percussion. My parents had hoped for me to play the saxophone, but that wasn’t an option. I chose the clarinet, which I did for a few years and then I started playing the French horn. That’s the instrument I played in college. But looking back, that one moment when I chose the clarinet, that moment set something in motion which brought me where I am today. That is also why I’m very passionate that young people have access to music. I didn’t come from a wealthy family, and as much as we loved music, I don’t think it ever would have happened for me if it hadn’t come to me through school. So, it’s quite important that all young people have that opportunity.
Music gave me an identity and so much pride. I remember walking home from the bus with my horn on my back, and I was proud of that. I wasn’t cool or popular within a certain subset of people. But music really gave me something to be proud of. To this day, you tell anyone at a cocktail party that you’re working at a symphony orchestra, and everyone is fascinated. I’m still enjoying that identity that music has given me.
Gustavo, how did you end up studying music at a young age?
G: I didn’t actively choose it; it was just a given. I never thought about it. I was just studying music and that’s all I wanted to do. Looking back, that is a bit strange, of course. That it was so clear, already when I was a kid, in my mind and soul that I wanted to become a musician. The questions I had to figure out were what instrument I wanted to play, where I wanted to study. Those kinds of things. There was not a single doubt in my mind that I would do anything else. It was clear to me that I was a musician from a young age.
Was it a common thing in Valencia to study music?
G: Because of my father, it was. The wind bands are also a big part of the culture in Valencia. Every area in and around the city has its own wind band. So, in that sense, people had access to music and could play it. But when I went to high school, I was the different one because I was studying classical music. I remember myself as the only kid who was “the musician.”
Did it affect you: being seen as different?
G: At that time, I must have felt a little different because my peers saw me as “different”. That wasn’t great fun, but it never caused any doubts about continuing this journey I was on. I don’t understand it completely to be honest, but to this day, I am always driven by a large degree of determination and commitment. It’s this intuition that often informs me which path I have to follow, in my choices, in life. So far, that has worked for me.
Now I have a daughter of my own, and I’m observing how she lives her life: it is completely different from how I made my choices in life. So, the way I have been living my life may feel normal, but that might not be the case at all. In many ways, I am very much the same as I was when I was still a child. I’m still very passionate about what I do, almost to the level of obsession. I’m very determined about my job and everything that concerns the music I’m dealing with.
I don’t have a clear distinction between the professional and any other parts of my life. Music blends into every corner of my existence. It is my complete way of life. Even when I’m on holiday I’m studying music. In recent years, the longest I have gone without opening a score must have been no longer than 24 hours. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I would miss it.
Reflecting on this from the position I am in at this moment in life, I understand that this isn’t “normal”, but it is a blessing to have found my purpose in life so early. Everyone isn’t so lucky.
Mark, after high school, you left Cincinnati to study in Cleveland.
M: Indeed, in 1997, I moved to Cleveland, Ohio to study the French horn. As I progressed in high school, the idea of going to New York really took hold of me – to move to New York and study at the Juilliard School. But the whole idea that I wanted to become a professional musician had also caused tension with my parents. I had always been a good student with an interest in languages and science, so when I came home one day to officially announce that I wanted to pursue playing the French horn professionally, my parents simply had no idea what that would mean. Honestly, I didn’t really have an idea what that would mean myself.
So, to find out, in a flash of youthful bravery, I picked up the phone and called the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. The general line connected me with someone in the education department and they answered most of my questions. Explained to me that I needed to go to a music school, how auditioning works, that musicians mostly join a union. They even told me how much musicians usually make. I shared all of this with my parents, and they started to understand that it is a real career. But they had one condition: I couldn’t go to New York. And in retrospect that was probably the right thing. I had lived a pretty sheltered life until then and I didn’t have a lot of experience with the world. But I was very fortunate to be accepted to the Cleveland Institute of Music, where I had an incredible experience.
I realized when I had gotten there that I knew absolutely nothing. I was suddenly thrown into this environment with young professionals who had already lived a whole life in music. Having gone to the summer camps, for many years, things like that — I had done none of that. The experience was a huge learning curve, but also great preparation for the journey to come.
It also meant your first encounter with the competitiveness of the classical music world.
M: Correct. I simply had never been in a professional environment like this. The school is quite small, with only a couple hundred students. And that goes all the way from young artists, high school kids, who are there part-time, up to people who are getting doctorates. And we were all in one orchestra. I will never forget the very first piece I played in college: fourth horn in the overture to Carl Nielsen’s opera “Maskerade”. I had never heard the piece before. This was the analog era: to hear music you had to go to the listening library. I got to the first rehearsal and the conductor greets everyone, explains that it is sort of a comic opera, then the orchestra just took off like a rocket. I was completely in over my head.
I will never forget leaving that rehearsal and calling my parents and telling them that I couldn’t do it. And they reminded me that I had earned my spot and that maybe I was going to work harder than some other people, but that didn’t mean that I couldn’t do it. When I think of every professional experience that I have had throughout my life, it feels like being thrown in the deep end and just figuring it out. I’m so happy that at 17 years old I had that experience and overcame that feeling.
Were you able to identify with a lot of your peers there, also considering your African American descent?
M: I built really great relationships there. One of the things that served me in my career was that I went to that school. In the different orchestras I worked at there were people I went to college with or who taught in Cleveland. Still, there were very few African Americans at that school. At that time, I didn’t even know of many professional classical musicians who were African Americans. But that isn’t to say that I didn’t make wonderful relationships.
Gustavo, after high school, you eventually moved from Valencia to Amsterdam.
G: Yes. And at that time, that was quite something. Spain had been a dictatorship until 1975, so even when I grew up, there was an element of isolation. There was this exchange between Spain and other European countries. My brother had gone to Brussels to study so that pretty much showed me the way, what it meant to leave where we came from. But when it happened for me, it was quite a shock.
What did Amsterdam teach you?
G: Everything! I became an adult there. I came as a teenager without much life experience, and I learned everything while being there. I hardly spoke English when I moved there, so I had to learn it. Along with Dutch, of course. I met my wife in Amsterdam. My daughter grew up there and goes to school there. It became a second part of who I am, next to being Spanish. It taught me many things about cultural differences too. At the same time, I was my obsessive self while studying there. Still, it was a remarkable experience.
Much later, when I started traveling for work and would return, I got acquainted with the city even more. It is just perfectly sized, not too big and not provincially small. It is relaxed but not boring. The architecture is fascinating. At this point, I could live in other places, but I chose to live in Amsterdam because I like it. It is not my only home, but it definitely also feels like home. I’m also at home in Spain, and I feel at home here in Toronto. But at this point, I have lived longer in Amsterdam than in Valencia.
After your studies, you became a professional percussionist at the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and found yourself in a new and very international context.
G: A symphony orchestra is a unique mix of nationalities but also generations, personalities, and backgrounds. But there is always that one common ground: making extraordinary music together. Once I started performing, I really became aware of the sentiment that it is such a big, shared effort. Technically but also emotionally. Everyone in a symphony orchestra needs the other players. All of those cultural differences disappear and only the music remains. There is a dialogue without words.
That is quite unique in this life. Obviously, everyone has their own opinion and perspective on the music, but only through the common path can you move forward together. In that moment, the individual truly blends with the collective. In the most special moments, even the audience becomes part of this union.
This interdependence of the individuals in an orchestra to be able to grow almost feels like a metaphor for society.
Yes, I think so. Music can teach human beings fundamental things about life. And at the same time, life will teach you the things you have to apply to music making. But again, all this can only happen when everybody is striving for the same level of excellence. In your store, I also encountered something of that same sentiment. The immaculate process of measuring the body, finding out what’s best for me. I felt some similarity to how the different elements of a symphony orchestra strive for a perfect “product”.
While Gustavo started his career as a musician after studying, you Mark decided not to become a professional French horn player.
M: Correct. During those years in college, I became very sure that I wanted a life in music. And the only one that was presented to me was as a musician. So, after graduating, I decided to move to New York to study with a member of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. I realize in retrospect that I just did it because I finally wanted to have the experience of living in New York. So, I moved to New York and studied with the second horn in the Met and a lot of things suddenly started coming together. It was at that moment I realized that I either had to really do this, or not do it at all. And I decided not to do it. I imagined the different scenarios of the life that was before me and what it would take. I asked myself if I was the person who “needed” to do whatever necessary — that just wasn’t the case.
But a door opened when a dear friend was getting a manager for her career as an opera singer, and she introduced me to the idea of working in management. So, that’s when a new life in New York started. Working on the management side of classical music at IMG Artists.
Were you once again the odd one out in that environment?
My parents had always told me: if you want to be considered equal, you have to be twice as good. And I have to say: I have yet to see them proven wrong. This also manifested itself in my clothing. I love clothing, which is also the result of the fact that I had to be very conscious of how I appear, how I fit into this world. At that time, I was the only Black person in a classical music agency that had offices in America, Europe, and Asia. I didn’t notice it much back then. In retrospect, I see that in many ways it put me in a box. A box of palatability and acceptability. But having been there, and now being able to see that gives me the power to step out of it.
But don’t get me wrong. I was very happy: working at one of the biggest agencies for classical music in the world, with the most famous singers of the day. I had access to so many operas and concerts – it gave me so much. I learned how all of these perfectionists deal with their work, the pressure — it was incredible training to be a CEO. I was living the dream in many ways.
Gustavo, how did your transition from a percussionist to conducting come about?
I have always been very fascinated by conducting. To study music, create an image of how it sounds in your mind and soul and eventually take this to an orchestra that will play the music. To find this way to express what I have in mind for the music, there is even some spiritual element to that. To express this level of emotion so others can understand it and translate it into their playing. And there is no formula for this to work, either. Sometimes it works and other times it doesn’t work as well, which forces me to dig deep into myself again and find another way to try to achieve what I have in my mind as a conductor.
It is hard to put it into words. There are no clear answers on what conducting is. And that’s what I love about it and why, at a certain point in my career, I wanted to step into that world. It formed the perfect new stage in which I could better myself in an even more complex métier. It was the logical next step in my journey in classical music. It allows me to learn so much more about the music I love profoundly, my personal relationship with it and how to perform it in the best way possible with others that love the music just as much.
Mark, after your time at IMG and working for the San Francisco Symphony, you ended up back in Cleveland at The Cleveland Orchestra.
M: Despite all the great things I was able to learn and do: I was like a fish out of water on the west coast. I’m far too uptight and direct. Speaking of my personal style: I lived in the Haight-Ashbury district, and I went to work wearing jacket and trousers at a minimum. And one day someone comes up to me and said: “I quit working in corporate America because I had to wear a suit. Sorry, man!” And I turned around and told him: “I wear these clothes because I like them!” That was just an incident, of course. But it illustrates that personally it was just really not my place.
So, when the opportunity arose to run the artistic department in Cleveland, I took it with both hands. I couldn’t believe I was going to lead the artistic department for one of the great first-class orchestras in the world. And that whole experience was all about: understanding the cost of excellence, understanding that your values as an arts institution inform every decision, how an orchestra can serve its community and finally some amazing music making. Coming back to Cleveland was a full circle moment. I really became who I am there.
Were you also already more self-aware of your unique position in the industry at that time?
M: I became more aware, but still didn’t really want to talk about it. Because I didn’t want it to be my story. Right or wrong, I felt that I needed to show that I deserved to be here. And not because someone is ticking a box. And all of that changed in 2020 [the murder of George Floyd]. That was really a moment when I felt and internalized that I have a voice. And my voice is unique in my industry, so I need to use it.
Eventually you end up as the first Black person to become the CEO of a major symphony orchestra, here in Toronto. How did it come about?
M: Another phone call. I had resisted becoming a CEO, despite some people around me telling me that one day I should go for it. And I really felt that I didn’t want that. Because I wanted to be close to the music, but more so because I had a certain lack of confidence about taking on the responsibility, the pressure and how public it is. Being a person of color: we so often are put in a position that we have to carry everyone on our backs. It felt to me that if I would take it on and would fail, we as a group of people would fail in the job. It became not about me failing, but about us failing. Eventually, I realized that I’m just me. And I’ll succeed or I’ll fail, which is only about me.
So, when the Toronto Symphony Orchestra called me towards the end of the pandemic, I wasn’t ready yet. Then they came back to me, and it just clicked. I remember that zoom call so vividly, the moment it was over, I walked into the next room to my husband and told him how great these people were. I just knew there was something special. If you have done job interviews, you really become aware of when you are “selling something” and when you just have that instant chemistry. And I felt that: if they wanted me, I really wanted to take the step and go all in. And the whole process deepened that feeling. I came to understand what they were looking for and it lined up with my vision for the future of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
Gustavo, you had become the Music Director of the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra by 2015 and became the Music Director at the Toronto Symphony in 2020. In a very impressive manner, you really have immersed yourself in music for most of your life to perform at the highest possible level at every stage.
G: I’m still the same obsessive person I was as a kid: I adore music, I’m curious, I always want to do better and love creating something special with other people. To create beauty which can be enjoyed by other people and engage myself as an individual with the music of some of the greatest geniuses of humankind — I don’t think that will ever change.
You are a unique individual, but in this process, you are always in a harmonious dialogue with others. Here in Toronto, it is a dialogue with Mark as the CEO with whom you create the trajectory of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
G: I wouldn’t have been able to do the things I have done in my career by myself. And to create harmony, you also need dissonance. Both Mark and I want to do the best for this orchestra. We want to create music at the highest possible level. And that takes interactions of all levels. And to be working with a CEO who is sincere, empathic, who has the power to connect people, has the knowledge of the music and shares the same purpose: that is an utmost privilege. We don’t always have the same opinion, but we always find each other. Like the orchestra, we need each other to create the beauty we both believe in. I feel close to him professionally speaking and I feel close to him as a human being.
We even have a shared history: he hired me for my North American debut as a guest conductor of The Cleveland Orchestra. To now end up in Toronto together, that has created an even stronger bond. We have fun together and get the best out of each other. That is quite unique. There are so many layers to an institution like the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. To feel that everything is connected by our shared effort makes me feel I am exactly where I need to be for the future.
Mark, how do you see this future, which you are creating in harmony with Gustavo?
M: In the simplest terms, what I need to do, and this institution needs to do, is say: what these musicians put on stage is incredible. This is a group of musicians who play with beauty and delicacy. They are individually curious, supremely talented — but what they do with Gustavo is so incredible and has the power to wow everyone that is in front of them. Even people that “don’t know anything” about it. I think that the issue with our business is to break down all the tropes and suppositions of the exclusionary culture that surrounds that we do. I would consider myself a success in this role if we have made steps towards helping people realize that music is for everyone. This orchestra exists in this city for the people of this city. What we do is not the same if no one is listening.
And I think now is the time to create this new awareness of classical music. Access to music has been democratized by digitalization and we need to piggyback on this development to bring the walls around classical music down. As a genre in music, as an institution in Toronto, we need to get reacquainted with the communities we could and want to serve with our music.
You, as an individual, represent something special in particular — when you speak of truly breaking down certain walls that have kept the culture of exclusion alive for all of those decades.
M: The reactions to my appointment reminded me of the importance of representation. It simply represents the fact that there is yet another possibility for people who don’t look like what the box of expectation prescribes. It is all about opening up the panoply of choices that, for some, are an inherent given. And it comes at a time in my life in which I know that I’m ready. You could say I was just hired because they wanted to tick the box, but my resume speaks for itself. I’m ready for this because I worked hard for it.
Together you are clearly working towards a new stage of harmony. Leading the institution with ambitious and clear values, and helping classical music find a more open exchange with the world around it.
M: The chance to work with Gustavo was one of the important reasons to come to Toronto. The musical director needs the CEO to succeed and vice versa. We have known each other since 2015, when I hired him at The Cleveland Orchestra for his American debut, and we’ve built a relationship over the years. I knew that if I joined here in Toronto, I would have a person I could collaborate with. And as a professional, he is my ideal partner. He understands that the business and the art have to work hand in hand, and he knows that we each have to make compromises so that the other can be successful. He thinks about what is best for this institution in the same way that I do. He is a wonderful human being and it’s a great honor to call him a friend.
Similar to my aspirations, he brings a personal point of view and accompanying aesthetic. That is what we are showing with our collection as well. To usher in the future of classical music, it is important for people to be themselves. That includes having or taking the space to be who you are. Over time, certain traditions lose their elegance. Gustavo brings a certain elegance to everything he does, including how he presents himself. Together we have lots of work to do to succeed in our shared ambitions, but we will do so as ourselves, in every sense of the word. It took me a while to manifest this in my profession, but at this point, I am also completely ready to be who I am in everything I do.
Get inspired by Gustavo and Mark’s curated collection of quiet luxury for life in and around the concert hall.