Israeli mandolinist Avi Avital joins Vancouver Symphony Orchestra for a concert in the spring. (photo from vancouversymphony.ca)
The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s 101st season opens Sept. 20-21 at the Orpheum Theatre with Canadian diva Adrianne Pieczonka singing Franz Schubert’s orchestrated lieder, including Der Erlkönig (The Elf King), paired with Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 (Titan) and the world première of a new work commissioned from Juno-nominated Bekah Simms.
The VSO’s upcoming season also features several performers from the Jewish community, including cellist Gary Hoffman, originally from Vancouver, who provides a definitive interpretation of Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Part of the 2019-2020 Masterworks Gold series, the Nov. 29-30 concert includes Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and Jean Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5.
Also as part of this season’s Masterworks Gold series, Gidon Kremer joins the VSO Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 in a performance of Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto, in a transcription for violin. Anton Bruckner’s fourth and most popular Romantic symphony is part of the program, as is Orpheus by Canadian composer/conductor Samy Moussa.
This season’s Musically Speaking series includes Israeli mandolinist Avi Avital in a May 9 concert of works inspired by Italy, playing Ludwig von Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8, perhaps Beethoven’s most experimental symphony. Likewise, Giovanni Sollima’s new Mandolin Concerto, written for Avital, mashes up musical styles from baroque to rock ’n’ roll. Antonio Vivaldi’s Mandolin Concerto and Igor Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite round out the program, which will also be performed in North Vancouver on May 7 and in Surrey on May 8.
On May 22-23, Barenaked Ladies co-founder Steven Page brings an arsenal of songs from his 30-year catalogue for a sweeping set backed by the VSO. Together with trio mates Craig Northey and Kevin Fox, Page will guide audiences through an evening featuring songs from his solo career as well as Barenaked Ladies classics. This concert is part of the London Drugs VSO Pops series.
Yefim Bronfman performs Johannes Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra at the Orpheum Dec. 6 and 8. (photo from VSO)
“I don’t think it can be overstated, the significance of having an artist like Yefim Bronfman, like Yitzhak Perlman, who’s coming later in the season, as well. These are living legends in our field,” said Misha Aster, vice-president, artistic planning and production, at the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, in a phone interview with the Independent.
“It’s a testament to the city and to the orchestra that artists of this stature take the time to visit with us,” he said. “But it’s also an occasion for us to celebrate their presence here because it’s unusual – it’s a rare opportunity to hear artists of this calibre and of this experience perform works that are landmarks of the repertoire.”
On Dec. 6 and 8 at the Orpheum, Bronfman and the orchestra will perform Johannes Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2. The concert also features Richard Strauss’s Don Juan and Franz Liszt’s Les preludes.
Initial discussions for the December performances took place about two-and-a-half years ago. That’s a long time, said Aster, “but, for an artist of his calibre, that’s generally what’s required to get a date fixed in his calendar.”
While Bronfman is in tremendous demand, Aster said, “He loves Vancouver, which helps. Every visit he has made here in the past, he has reiterated his affection for the city, and for the orchestra.”
The upcoming concerts are not just a musical highlight of the VSO season, said Aster, “but one of the flagship statements of our season.”
He added, “The program he’s coming with, as well – the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 – is considered one of the Everests of the repertoire. It’s not frequently performed. It’s a very large piece, a very demanding piece for the soloist and for the orchestra, as well; it has a major solo cello part.”
The choice of music for a program with a visiting artist is “a discussion,” said Aster. “It’s a dynamic process between soloist, conductor and orchestra. There’s a need for balance between those elements.”
Bronfman has performed the Brahms before. “The combination [of Bronfman] together with Jun Märkl, who is a much-beloved conductor here with the orchestra, made Brahms a possibility,” Aster said.
The other compositions in the December program – Strauss’s Don Juan and Liszt’s Les preludes – will be played by the orchestra on its own. “They all fit within a certain genre,” noted Aster of the works. “It’s not coincidental programming, by any means.”
Brahms and Liszt were contemporaries, he explained, “but at opposite poles of the spectrum when it came to musical development of the later 19th century and the debate over what was considered ‘program music,’ that was music meant to tell a story, that was reflective of a certain kind of dramatic narrative, as opposed to purely abstract music or symphonic music that had its roots in the more classical esthetic.”
The latter was Brahms’ approach, said Aster, whereas Liszt was a champion of “this new kind of programmatic approach to music.” And Strauss “was considered an heir to Liszt with respect to that, so both of those tone poems – Les preludes and Don Juan – are narrative works of program music, and they’re juxtaposed with this massive concerto by Brahms, which is Brahms’ reiteration of his musical principles.”
Aster arrived in Vancouver for his position at the VSO in mid-August. Born in Hamilton, Ont., he had been in Berlin almost 13 years. Prior to that, he was in Austria for a couple of years.
Aster trained as a violinist at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, and studied political science, history and dramaturgy at McGill University, the London School of Economics and Harvard University. In his career, he’s been based in Europe largely, but he has always kept in touch with Canada, he said, as his grandmother is in Toronto and his parents divide their time between Ontario and a base in Europe. Aster’s wife, Kinneret Sieradzki, is Israeli and the couple has a 2-year-old daughter, Laila.
In Germany, Aster was working as an executive producer at Deutsche Grammophon, the recording label Universal Music, and he maintains a role at the Gustavo Dudamel Foundation, where he was director of programs. His move to Vancouver marks the first time he has lived in Canada since he was a teenager.
“It’s a major orchestra in this country,” Aster said about what attracted him to the job with the VSO. “It’s a very important cultural player, certainly in Western Canada, and I remember, even growing up in Toronto, having a sense that important things were happening in musical life in Vancouver and that the VSO was a formidable force in Canadian music.”
Recently, the whole organization has undergone a significant transition, with longtime musical director Bramwell Tovey retiring. “It was the ending of an era and the beginning of something new,” said Aster. “I hadn’t met Otto Tausk, the new music director, before we began the process of discussing the possibility of my joining the team here but I was immediately impressed by him, by the integrity of his musicianship, by his vision for the orchestra.”
Aster also had a sense, he said, of Tausk “being very European in outlook, in disposition, in artistic values, in his connections and contacts.” This was a world with which Aster had been familiar for a long time, so he felt that “it would be an interesting opportunity” and that he “could be a helpful fit in that sense,” of being originally from Canada and having roots here, “but also, in a professional sense, of being very familiar with the environment from which Maestro Tausk comes. That chemistry was really the key.” Adding to that was the organization’s “ambition with respect to an artistic agenda but also what the orchestra intends to mean for the community.”
The VSO is “an incredibly busy organization,” said Aster. “We produce 150 concerts a year, which is a lot, in relative terms, compared to many other orchestras in the country. And it has to do with the fact that the orchestra has always had the mandate to address itself to a range of different communities and a range of different musical tastes in the city. Unlike many other major orchestras in the country, we perform in 15 different venues around Greater Vancouver through the season in various configurations, based out of our home in the Orpheum, where we have our major subscription series.”
Part of Aster’s job is to ensure that it’s “not just a functional run-out that we do to North Van or to Surrey with a program, but that what we’re trying to program for those communities and for venues in those communities reflects a point of access for them into the world of music that we represent.”
Tickets for Bronfman’s performance at the Orpheum range from $16.25 to $125 and can be purchased from vancouversymphony.ca.
Anyone who buys a first-time subscription to the Jewish Independent as a gift for themselves or for a friend, family member or colleague by Nov. 28 will be entered into a draw to win two free tickets to hear Yefim Bronfman, one of the greatest pianists of our time, at the Orpheum Theatre on Dec. 6, 8 p.m.
With the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Bronfman will play Johannes Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in a concert that also features one of Richard Strauss’s great tone poems, Don Juan, and Franz Liszt’s Les preludes.
Not only will new subscribers be entered in the draw, but they will be able to purchase their subscription at a discount: only $20 for a one-year e-sub (40% off) and only $70 for a mailed sub (10% off).
The deadline to enter the draw is Wednesday, Nov. 28, 5 p.m. Email [email protected] or call 604-689-1520 for your chance to win.
Michael Fish initiated a unique VSO-JFSA collaboration, which will see JFSA clients attend the symphony on Nov. 15. (photo from Michael Fish)
“There is a direct relationship between cultural experiences and good health. Whether it’s participation in the arts or appreciation for the arts, there is an emotional response for those who engage in these experiences,” said Joel Steinberg, president of Jewish Family Service Agency (JFSA).
Steinberg was offering this observation in the context of a unique opportunity that JFSA has to help 200 clients attend a special concert of music by Jewish composers performed by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (VSO) at the Orpheum on Nov. 15.
Michael Fish, who has been a board member for the VSO for four years, wanted to encourage more Jewish community involvement with the symphony.
“In an effort to promote the VSO, as well as bring our community more into the fold, I decided to try to do something special,” Fish told the Independent. “With the support of the VSO’s conductor and musical director, Bramwell Tovey, the VSO agreed to put together a concert of all Jewish composers that I could use as a vehicle for my goal.”
Fish continued, “I then approached Jewish Family Service Agency and asked if they would be interested in sending some of their clients to an evening of Jewish music with the VSO. Knowing that many of their clients would not have the means to purchase a ticket for themselves, I took it upon myself to raise the funds from within the Jewish community to make it happen. I was thrilled at the fantastic response.”
According to Steinberg, Fish has used his advocacy very effectively for JFSA. In addition to organizing this concert, Fish secured a full page in VSO’s Allegro magazine recognizing “Friends of JFSA,” thereby helping JFSA communicate its mission to VSO patrons.
“Many people do not realize that about 10 percent of our clients are non-Jewish,” said Steinberg. “They are mostly users of home support and counseling services, both of which are fee-for-service and help generate critical revenues for our organization to support our other programs. This is a great opportunity for JFSA to raise its profile in the general community while benefitting our clients.”
According to Alan Stamp, JFSA’s director of counseling, the agency sporadically provides “tickets for inclusion” to clients who are in need and who have identified an interest in the arts. The program is managed by JFSA social workers on a case-by-case basis. One of the challenges with the existing system is that tickets are often donated last minute by supporters of JFSA who realize that they will not be able to use them. It can be difficult to match tickets with clients, many of whom face mobility challenges, on short notice. This event with VSO is on a different scale.
Silkie Wong, who works in development and communication at JFSA, has been assisting the department’s director, Audrey Moss, with coordinating the project from the JFSA side. Wong noted that JFSA organizes transportation where possible to ensure that clients can attend, as some of their clients find it difficult to get out on their own. Wong pointed out why this type of event is important: “This is a unique and meaningful experience. Attending cultural events enables our clients to live life, not just survive it.”
Steinberg hopes this avenue for inclusion, initiated by Fish, will spur others to step up and bring such more initiatives forward. “We hope that we will have an ongoing partnership with VSO, and that more of our friends connected to other organizations will help us open more doors and build similar partnerships,” said Steinberg.
Fish considers this is a win-win situation. He is excited about the beautiful music that both JFSA clients and members of the greater community will share, as well as the concert’s potential to raise the profile of VSO in the Jewish community. He summed up by saying, “The musicians will be playing to a larger audience, JFSA’s [clients and] patrons will enjoy a great evening, and perhaps the VSO will pick up a few patrons along the way. What could be better than that?”
To learn more about this concert, visit jfsa.ca.
Michelle Dodek is a freelance writer and community volunteer living in Vancouver.