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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 6

Music: Vancouver's Universal Language

by 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 Jacques Lacombe.

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 non-musical haunt?
"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."

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