By Isabella Iula

Listen to the story here:

With an hour to spare before her next class, third-year music composition student, Emma Clark, stops for a quick pick-me-up at the B Espresso Bar in The Royal Conservatory of Music. The music institute and part performance venue is located near the University of Toronto (U of T) Faculty of Music, the school where Clark currently pursues her studies. As she sips her hot apple cider in the corner of the cafe, where faint orchestral melodies echo in the distance, she reminisces about one of her first days in Toronto.

Beginning in the early fall of 2021, Clark left her home in small-town Saskatoon to transform her musical passions into a labour of love. Moving to the big city of Toronto at the age of 17 was a “whirlwind” for Clark. Her exposure to the “hustle and bustle” of big city life and settling into a new living space took its stressful toll.

To take her mind off the moving chaos, Clark began flipping through her social media. Her endless scrolling was met with a brief pause after an ad for “Toronto’s Candlelight Concerts” popped up on her screen. This type of marketing was something Clark had never seen before with classical music concerts as the advertisement framed the event around what the audience would observe at the actual concert.

“You just get this instant feeling of, ‘Oh, wow, that looks really cool,’ and that’s something you can’t necessarily, or we haven’t successfully captured, with just instrumental concerts rehearsing,” said Clark.


Candlelight Concerts: What’s in it for Torontonians? Learn more about the audience experience in the video above! 🕯️🎵🕯️🎵🕯️🎵🕯️🎵🕯️🎵🕯️🎵 #candlelightconcerts #torontomusic #classicalmusic #audiencepov

♬ original sound – isabella.iula

Since 2019, it would appear that an increasing number of Canadian orchestras have been shifting their focus towards online advertising, presumably in an effort to attract larger audiences. This online presence became a necessity in 2020 when the national Canadian orchestra association, Orchestras Canada, found live concert attendance in Canada had dropped by 98 per cent. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadian orchestras, specifically in Ontario, had gone from playing shows for close to 900 thousand people to just over 10 thousand. Although live audience attendance increased to 224,902 in 2021, Ontario orchestras still have a long journey ahead to recover their pre-pandemic audience.

To address these concerns in the classical music scene, Fever, a global entertainment platform, created Candlelight Concerts, a live music series. Fever’s public relations and communications coordinator, Amanda Boucault, described it as a “reimagining of the traditional concert format.”

The COVID-19 pandemic struck an economic blow to classical music as Robin Elliott, a musicology professor at U of T, explained how the core audience demographic began dropping like flies out of fear of contracting the toxic flu bug during a show.

A classical concert patron in Ontario tends to fall in between the ages of roughly 35 or older, as highlighted in a 2018 study by Orchestras Canada. Additionally, a 2023 collaborative study from The Results Group for the Arts and ticketing platform AudienceView, found a decline in the older generation’s participation in public activities post-pandemic, which Elliott also identified as part of the genre’s slow recovery to refill music halls.

“[Classical music organizations] are all hurting. They’re all suffering, as nothing has recovered fully since the pandemic,” said Elliott.

Not to mention these concerts tend to come at high-ticket prices. The average classical concert ticket is estimated to cost over one hundred dollars, according to ticket platform SeatGeek. These hefty admission fees are not easy to score amongst younger audiences, especially for students like Clark living on a tight social budget.

However, Boucault identified the goal of the Candlelight Concerts is to “democratize access” to classical music.

After giving the concert ads a closer look, Clark secured a ticket for a Candlelight Concert on Sept. 7, 2021. It was a tribute program dedicated to the Polish composer Frédéric Chopin.

As a music student at U of T, Clark does receive discounts and complimentary tickets from local concert presenters, but these financial benefits did not apply to her case with Candlelight Concerts. However, the concert still remained a selling point for Clark after finding out the Candlelight Concerts’ non-discounted ticket prices ranged from 30 to 80 dollars.

Before she knew it, Sept. 7 rolled around, and it was time for Clark to witness her first Candlelight Concert at Toronto’s Metropolitan Community Church.

When she entered the small, wooden church that evening, she was taken aback by the sea of LED candles flickering around the room. They were lined along the pews and the sides of staircases while the rest formed a pool of light around the grand piano in the centre of the room.

Though the candles may not have burned hot wax, their luminescent glow created a “warm and cozy and very welcoming” atmosphere for Clark to fill her ears with the soothing instrumentals of the show, Chopin’s Best Works.

Clark has attended about 60-70 classical music concerts in her lifetime, and it didn’t take her long to notice their tendency to avoid human connection. From her experience, the concerts halls are usually pitch black with only one beam of light shining down on the orchestra.

As for the audience, Clark said they will sit in silence separated by their assigned armrests for two hours.

“Classical music, the way it’s presented, has been alienating audiences for a long time […] because they haven’t really made an effort to market or make the experience more social or more engaging,” said Clark.

Candlelight Concerts attempts to break this barrier of isolation by hosting performances in smaller, intimate venues where patrons like Clark can openly connect with other audience members.

As Clark’s eyes wandered around the church, she was stunned to spot several young faces in the crowd. Her face beamed with joy. “I thought it was refreshing and inspiring for me, as a musician, to know that there are people my own age who think it’s actually interesting to listen to classical music.”

Knowing her prior investment in the music scene, Clark recognizes how people with music tastes outside of classical music may be more hesitant to attend a classical concert. Candlelight Concerts offer a mix of modern compositions by contemporary artists alongside timeless compositions from classical composers.

Clark said seeing how the concerts fill music halls by “merging the classical world and the pop world” gave her a ray of hope that her aspiring career as a classical composer will still exist in years to come.

“I look at a concert program or a concert series like [Candlelight Concerts], and I think, ‘Oh, I could do something similar to that in the future […] because it’s [providing] employment [opportunities],” said Clark.

Four people playing violins and cello instruments around a large group of LED candles placed in a wooden church.
A string quartet composed of local musicians playing at the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto on March 7, 2024. They are performing a Taylor Swift tribute for the live music series Candlelight Concerts, produced by global entertainment platform Fever. (Isabella Iula/T•)

Through Elliott’s 40 years of teaching classical music history, he noted the repeated pressure on orchestras and musicians to revise their repertoire to catch the ears of younger audiences. It is, as he put it, the “legacy” of classical music institutions. Without these changes, the genre, along with its musicians, may play their final outro as a 2023 survey revealed only 20 per cent of Canadians prefer to listen to classical music.

For Elliott, Candlelight Concerts are a “step” to bridge the listening gap, but not a permanent tool to preserve the genre. To him, these concerts only act as an introduction to classical music, but hopes the experience will inspire audiences to explore the genre further.

“My hope is that people will have a hunger for immersing themselves in longer and more immersive experiences, and to be fair, Candlelight Concerts, are kind of aligned with that hope of mine,” said Elliott.

“I hope [people] will continue to find value in [classical music], and have the opportunity to experience it because classical music performance has been the most rich and rewarding experience of my life and I would not like other people to be deprived of that,” he added.

As for Clark, she believes it’s not the Candlelight Concerts themselves, but the memories that come out of the experience that will keep classical music from fading. She knows this because she can still recall the multi-sensory production two years later, serving as a warm reminder of why she moved to the big city in the first place.