Music: Vancouver's Universal Languageby Crystal Chan
/ May 18, 2011
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Eleven years ago, Bramwell Tovey found
a new home: Vancouver, British Columbia. The Essex, England, native
had been living in Canada for just over a decade as the Winnipeg Symphony
Orchestra's music director. In 2000, he had come to take over as the
Vancouver Symphony Orchestra's maestro.
The ‘best’ venue for music
in that city depends entirely on the musical genre and experience one’s
looking for. For some, there's nothing quite like The Cellar, a jazz
resto-club offering contemporary as well as jazz music which is also
a recording studio; it's Tovey's personal favourite. Or perhaps Cultch,
the hip nickname the Vancouver East Cultural Centre goes by, might be
more up your alley. Here you'll find a mélange of intimate, up-close-and-personal
shows. For those interested in big ensembles and soloists, chances are
you'll find them headlining at the Chan Centre, the Orpheum, or the
Queen Elizabeth Theatre. The first, which sits on the University of
British Columbia campus, is the city's slick modern hall. Tovey likens
the Chan Centre to a miniature Birmingham Symphony Hall: "It's
got gorgeous acoustics and is wonderful for Baroque or classical repertoire.
A little bit too noisy in there with something like Bruckner."
The Orpheum is a beautiful old-style Vaudeville hall dating from the
mid-1920s, with beautiful acoustics and lush, red and gold interiors.
Its home at the centre of the city's biggest nightlife district means
it attracts plenty of young audiences. As for the QE Theatre, even though
it is plagued by poor renovations and acoustic weaknesses, it attracts
big audiences by playing host to the Vancouver Opera. The opera goes
from strength to strength here; productions are very popular, with recent
successes including Nixon in China during the Olympics, and the
premiere of the homegrown work Lillian Alling, the latest from
composer John Estacio and librettist John Murrell. The VO's upcoming
April production is La Traviata, conducted by Quebec's very own
Hidden gems come in the form of
small venues such as churches. The city boasts a thriving recital culture
whose top player is the wildly popular Vancouver Recital Society, and
amateur festivals such as the Kiwanis are a rite of passage for most
residents. There are fewer churches here than in other Canadian centres
such as Toronto and Montreal. Churches and other community spaces dotted
across the greater municipality are in great use as rehearsal and performance
space. Downtown's Holy Rosary Cathedral has a good space for early music,
and the beautiful Christ Church Cathedral, seating 500, is perhaps the
grandest and most acoustically-balanced.
For Tovey, however, the lack of
a mid-sized hall in the downtown core is holding the city back. Simon
Fraser University recently opened a 300-seater on its downtown campus,
but something around 1,000 seats just doesn't exist.
"When I was growing up I was
able to sit in the choir stalls to watch all the great orchestras that
came through London," says Tovey. "A lot of Canadian cities
lack this. Too often I think halls are reluctant to have [mid-sized
venues with cheap] seats because scruffy-looking students might sit
in them; I think those are exactly the people that should be there!"
Tovey is not overly optimistic
about such a hall coming in the near future. “There’s been talk
of a new hall for twenty years," he explains. "There’s not
been a lot of thought and creativity from city council when it comes
to major artistic projects. The city suffers from that. For example,
the city sees itself as a rival to Sydney, but there’s no opera house
here, no cultural amenity on the water. That becomes a disappointment
for people. We had hoped there would be something as part of the Olympic
legacy, but it just hasn’t happened."
That problem aside, "we're
very lucky," says Tovey. "There's nothing off the beaten path.
Vancouver's relatively small, and the city itself is very concentrated.
Apart from the real shortfall of not having a 1,000 seat concert hall
downtown, everywhere has a contribution to make and is easy to access."
Accessible music is part and parcel
of overall booming music attendance and participation. The symphony
plays to anywhere from 6,000 to 10,000 people each weekend, sometimes
more. And, as he puts it, the audience is a mix of anything from bluebloods
to blue hair. For a city this size it’s an extraordinarily healthy
state of affairs.
"We’re not used to the phenomenon
of the empty concert hall or the energy-less audience," says Tovey.
"We’re very, very fortunate. There’s a large amount of energy
that’s been infused into the music community by Asian immigrants.
That’s been the single most impressive factor, I think, in terms of
audience development; many of these families regard music as being an
essential component of their children’s education."
"This is a real melting point
of a town. You very rarely seem to meet anyone from
Vancouver. I think this mass of immigrants makes music the one language
that everybody speaks."
What is Maestro Tovey's favourite
"This is such a beautiful city that almost every corner of
it is gorgeous. For me the most beautiful spot is Jericho beach. There
you can see the 21st century city and the skyscrapers in
one direction and in the other direction you can see mountains and the
Georgia Straight flowing out to the Pacific Ocean. You’re literally
one with nature and with civilization at the same time. But everywhere
the city is gorgeous. I’m looking outside at my garden right now and
the grass is green—and it’s nearly Christmas."