Canada Question
The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra has never abandoned its mission to educate the young

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra has never abandoned its mission to educate the young

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra has never abandoned its mission to educate the young

VANCOUVER I was in Grade 5 when my teacher took our class to hear our first live symphony concert. And frankly, I was hooked.

This was several prime ministers ago, mind you, and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra of today performs in a different hall with different players under a different conductor. But like sister orchestras across Canada, it has never abandoned its mission to educate the young.

Sure, most of us Grade 5’s thought of music more as entertainment than as education and not least as a way to avoid math class.

Sad to say, society as a whole has come to agree with us preadolescents. Music no longer plays so great a role in our schooling as it once did and still does in Europe. Which is why, in 2009, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra decided to open its own music school, right next door to the Orpheum Theater where it regularly gives concerts.

In 2020, he hired Angela Elster, a 32-year veteran of Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, to head the institution, which she still does in addition to being president and CEO of the Vancouver Symphony itself.

It isn’t a school focused narrowly on the orchestra and its literature, or on traditional school-age students. Its youngest inhabitants are three months old and their parents can study there as well. About 30 members of the faculty play in the orchestra. The curriculum embraces jazz and world music as well as western classical music, with training in traditional Chinese instruments included as a reflection of Vancouver’s fast-growing Asian population.

As part of their work schedule, orchestra members visit more than 100 schools a year and present a series of concerts for children aged four to 11 and another series for tiny tots, up to five years old.

No, they are not using these projects to try to discover the next Mozart. What the orchestra realizes is the importance of early exposure to music. In the concert I recently attended under music director Otto Tausk, there was a wide variety of ages in the audience, including a substantial number of younger people.

With an overall annual budget in the $19 million range, the VSO is the largest arts organization west of Ontario as well as the third largest orchestra in Canada, after those in Toronto and Montreal. Moreover, it enjoys an international reputation, thanks to tours as far afield as Korea, Japan and China.

Much of its current quality can be traced to the long music directorship of Tausk’s predecessor, the British conductor Bramwell Tovey, whose portrait hangs in the music school as a remembrance of his pivotal role in its founding.

Tovey made a long-term commitment to the orchestra of a kind seldom seen in this age of jet-setting musicians. Thanks to COVID-19, both Tausk in Vancouver and Gustavo Gimeno in Toronto shuttle back and forth between homes in the Netherlands and jobs in Canada.

I had previously heard Tausk conduct his orchestra pre-COVID and was happy to have my impression of his solid musicianship confirmed in a subscription concert pairing Beethoven’s monumental “Ninth Symphony” with Ravel’s “G Major Piano Concerto,” the latter featuring Angela Cheng as soloist .

Typical of today’s baton waves, the Dutch maestro is an international musician, having conducted in such places as Australia, Denmark, Italy, Russia and the United Kingdom.

Now in his third season in Vancouver, circumstances have conspired to make him a part-time Vancouverite, flying in 13 times a year, so the question of whether he will become another Bramwell Tovey remains open. The hopeful sign is that he recently renewed his four-year contact, which now extends to 2028.

As for the orchestra, it currently employs 66 full-time players for a 42-week season, playing about 150 concerts before annual attendance of more than a quarter million, including 50,000 children and young adults.

And it is surviving the pandemic, to the considerable relief of Elster.

Fifty-nine days after beginning her job in January 2020, she had to announce the shutting down of the season and the school, with an anticipated loss of $7 million for the rest of that year. “We made a commitment to keep the music going,” she said. So the orchestra and its players continued to perform and teach, virtually at first and subsequently in numbers permitted by COVID regulations.

“But live performance is what we do best,” Elster asserted, and a handsome brochure for the coming season suggests the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra is back with a bang.

It is a far better orchestra now than the one I heard at the age of 10, though in some ways I still regard it as my orchestra, the one that opened my ears to live symphonic music. It is good to be reminded that the ear-opening continues.

WL

William Littler is a Toronto-based classical music writer and a freelance contributing columnist for the Star.

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