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Music and Politics: a perspective

The connection between music and politics has had a long, varied and interesting history. National anthems inspire a country’s patriotism, and protest songs rally a down-trodden populace. Music has become so important to today’s political campaigns that their success can almost hinge on a well-chosen song.

Classical music has had many great moments of political connections, whether or not it was initially intended by the composer. A hymn by Hebrew slaves longing for their homeland in Verdi’s Nabucco (“Va pensiero”), resonated during a period of Italian emancipation from the Austrians and French.

Beethoven was an earlier proponent of political statements with Wellington’s Victory and the “Eroica” Symphony. Benjamin Britten wrote his masterpiece War Requiem, underscoring the futility of war, and John Adams’s opera The Death of Klinghoffer examines the killing of an American Jew by Palestinian terrorists.

Recently, classical music performances have been targeted as forums for political protest due to the alleged affiliations of the musicians. Just last month a concert by the Israel Philharmonic was interrupted by a chorus of chanting protesters in London’s Barbican, and not so long before that, audiences in London and Edinburgh endured stop-and-go performances as protesters continually interrupted the Jerusalem String Quartet.

The latter ensemble, a long-time Vancouver Recital Society favourite, gave a very fine performance at the Chan Centre on Sunday, October 2. At this event, our patrons were ‘greeted’ by peaceful protesters handing out leaflets; happily the performance proceeded without an accompanying chorus.

Two days before the performance we learned of the potential presence of protesters, setting off a little flurry of emails and phone calls with the Chan Centre staff, UBC security and even the RCMP. The goal was not to prevent a protest, a civil right, but rather to ensure the safety of, and be respectful to, the ticket-buying public.

This goal was achieved for our patrons, but a similar respect was not, unfortunately, offered to the musicians. The distributed pamphlet, which was cleverly designed to complement the VRS program, effectively put words into the mouths of the four musicians. It was written in such a way that it was misconstrued by a few as coming from the Quartet or, as the pamphlet claims, “the ambassadors of apartheid.”

Responding to an earlier situation, first violinist Alexander Pavlovsky said, “I don’t think we are controversial as musicians. The protests that happened [in London] were based on a wrong assumption — that we are presented, employed or supported by the Israeli government. That is categorically untrue.”

Regrettably, without balanced information some of our patrons took the information to heart and have expressed anger with the Jerusalem String Quartet. In some cases the anger has extended to the Vancouver Recital Society for (supposedly) providing a forum for political ideology.

It is our hope our patrons take the time to learn more about the Jerusalem String Quartet, as there is most definitely more to this than the singular point-of-view distributed on Sunday. A starting point could be the VRS Facebook page where you will find a letter by violist Ori Kam who wrote in response to the recent protest against the Israel Philharmonic.

Paul Gravett
Executive Director

Ru35: Recitals for young Vancouverites

Ru35Ru35 is a new program for discerning young Vancouverites between 18 and 35 who want to broaden their cultural horizons, impress a date or influence their network in a new way.

Young adults get the opportunity to experience live solo performances by world-class classical artists, meet new people, and never break the bank doing it.

Tickets are only $18, a savings of up to 75%. After taking in some great classical music continue the experience at one of our fantastic partner restaurants.

We launch this program on September 25 with pianist Boris Giltburg. See details on our Facebook page. (you do not need an account to view this information)

Tickets and information are available through the VRS box office at 604.602.0363.

The Season Begins

Murray PerahiaOnce again we have a season of musical treasures that will be yours to discover over 21 performances, plus one very special presentation. To start this season we present the Vancouver debuts of two young musicians: pianist Boris Giltburg and violist Maxim Rysanov.

Boris Giltburg first came to our attention through a long-time friend of the VRS, who had heard him in Kansas City. Following what was obviously a stirring performance, she immediately called to say we MUST book this pianist. With that recommendation, his marvellou s reco rded performances and critical comments (including comparisons to the legendary Artur Rubinstein, no less), how could we not bring Boris to Vancouver so that you could hear him for yourselves?

As a violist, Maxim Rysanov has chosen the much-maligned instrument that, for some, is known more as the butt of jokes than as a solo instrument. But that is not the case with Maxim, who has staked out a solo career typically the domain of the violinist or cellist. Moreover, when you hear Maxim’s performance of Bach’s Suite, any thought of his instrument’s status will quickly vanish when you are treated to a sound and interpretation that seems “just right”. We are also pleased to welcome back Eldar Nebolsin, who made his recital debut on our series in 1998.

The third performance is our beloved Jerusalem String Quartet. We love them, and our audiences love them, and that is why we keep bringing them back to Vancouver.

Hopefully you know we have slipped in a very special presentation this season: the return of Alfred Brendel to Vancouver on Friday, October 21. Delivering a very special illustrated lecture, titled Does classical music have to be entirely serious?, this is a rare opportunity to hear the unequalled insight of a great pianist and musician. Tickets have sold very quickly for this presentation and there are very few remaining at this time.

We look forward to seeing you very soon as discover together the great musical treasures that lie ahead.

Leila Getz and Paul Gravett

Trousers, Duct Tape and the Jerusalem String Quartet

Duct TapePaul Gravett, hasn’t worked at the VRS long enough to know that to ask me “to write a few words about something” is like asking me to fly a jumbo jet!  Here is the response to his most recent request… “Would you mind writing a few words about your first encounter with the Jerusalem String Quartet?”

My first encounter with them in the 2000/2001 season was indeed memorable.  I picked them up at YVR when they arrived on a flight from Colombia at around noon. They were to perform at the Playhouse at 8pm that evening.  Kyrill, the cellist was the first one through Immigration and Customs by a long shot. He explained to me that not all their luggage had arrived in Vancouver with them.  And so it was….four instrumentalists and luggage for two.

You can imagine the hullabaloo in the car on the way to the hotel to check in just before their rehearsal and soundcheck at the Playhouse. There were heated discussions about what might be in Sasha’s (first violinist) luggage and what he could lend his two colleagues with missing luggage.

I tried to convince them that I really didn’t care whether or not they played the concert that evening in their jeans and t-shirts…that all I cared about was the quality of the concert.  And I told them that if they played wonderfully I was sure the audience would forgive them.

The run through was absolutely wonderful and I had no doubts that we were in for a great evening.

I took them back to the hotel to rest, and when I fetched them that evening to take them to the theatre they told me that they had solved the problem.  Kyrill had his dark suit and Sasha had his.  They went down to the dressing rooms to put their things down and then came up on stage to do a quick run through again.

I was sitting in the audience waiting for them to appear. And when they did, I thought I was going to collapse. I cannot recall when I have ever laughed harder, longer or louder.  Tears were rolling down my cheeks.  The stage crew came out to see what was going on. I could see them really trying not to laugh.

Sergei, the 2nd violinist had borrowed a pair of dark trousers from Sasha. Sasha is quite tall and very slim, and Sergei is shortish and squat. The trousers were dragging on the floor and he was walking in a manner which clearly demonstrated that the pants didn’t fit him.

The stage manager, offering to be helpful said “wait a minute, I have some duct tape. Duct tape fixes everything”.  He came back with the tape, got down on the floor and taped the trousers Sergei was wearing to the correct length…and which point I could see that the shoes he was wearing were at least three sizes too big.  The shoes stuck out way beyond his heels, which probably accounted for the comical way in which he walked.  Of course, that provoked more gales of laughter from me.  When I could breathe and speak again I told them that there was absolutely NO WAY that they could come out on stage like that, and that the entire audience would collapse in laughter and that they had to play in their travelling clothes.  So we reached an agreement. They would do just that, if I made an announcement at the beginning of the performance.

I made the announcement, and I demonstrated the way Sergei walked on stage, by which time both the audience and I were shaking with laughter. I described the shoes, the duct tape and the whole deal.

Some people said they didn’t know whether they had bought tickets for a concert or a comedy show.

What a great concert it was.  That’s why they are regular visitors to our series.

Leila Getz

Treasuring Transformations

Responding to a request for your “most memorable cultural experience, anywhere, anytime,” it didn’t come as any surprise that our readers are cultural omnivores with wide-ranging interests and experiences.

It was no more surprising that many of the respondents recognized the near impossibility of reducing a lifetime of cultural experiences and interests into a short, pithy answer. As one described: “There are so many experiences, so many cultures, so many forms of culture, so many associations.”

Nevertheless, that challenge did not stop many from telling about their standout memories. From local performances to extravagant productions in far-flung cities, and from self-made creations to agriculture (think the gardens of Alhambra), the responses were varied and deeply personal.

Many cultural memories originate in our own city, including “the final Vancouver performance of Alicia de Larrocha and the performance of Mstislav Rostropovich where I picked up a broken cello string of his after his more than memorable performance of the Dvorak cello concerto”. Perhaps still a treasured souvenir.

Happily, other local memories were inspired by Vancouver Recital Society performances: “Hearing Gerald Finley at the Chan has to be right up there, as has Alfred Brendel’s playing of [Beethoven’s] Diabelli Variations at the same venue. Those were transformative moments.”

Still others wrote about experiences while on international travels, such as a multi-media presentation of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana in Mexico City, and a performance by Dame Janet Baker of Mahler in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall.

We are honoured that many of our readers took the time to share their varied and rich memories. Perhaps you will be inspired to share your treasured experiences…if you are up to the near-impossible challenge!

Serving Up Virtuosity

I read with interest a New York Times article (found here) about the plethora of virtuosi currently found on the concert stages.

According to the author, Anthony Tommasini, there are perhaps more technically gifted pianists now than at any other time. Compositions that were once the exclusive domain of the rare pianists are now commonplace on the concert stage.

Interestingly, Tommasini suggests today’s concert-goer does not necessarily appreciate the upsurge in technical prowess due to the simple fact that phenomenal technique is now expected.

Tommasini goes on to describe reasons for the increased dexterity (“learning to practice the craft better, becoming better conditioned”), as well as two types of pianistic groups: those who have the technique to play anything and those who have the technique to play the music that is most important to them.

Throughout the article many pianists are cited, almost all of whom are very familiar to the VRS audiences. We posted a link to the article on the VRS Facebook page last week. In response, David Gordon Duke wrote that the article “made me think about how remarkable our Vancouver recital diet has been over the years”.

Perhaps with a little bravura of our own, we thought it would be fun to list the pianists mentioned by Tommasini along with some of their performance dates.

Yuja Wang (November 2008, May 2010); Lang Lang (October 1999, March 2002, November 2004, October 2008, January 2011); Yundi Li (April 2004, April 2006); Pierre-Laurent Aimard (October 2003, October 2007); Nikolai Lugansky (February 2009); Piotr Anderszewski (March 2003, October 2008); Richard Goode (February 1998, April 2001, April 2005, February 2007); Jean-Yves Thibaudet (January 1999, April 2001); Evgeny Kissin (September 1996); and Stephen  Hough (February 1991, October 2000).

It reads like a VRS season made in heaven!

We are equally proud to be presenting three more mentioned pianists in our upcoming season: Kirill Gerstein, the Gilmore Artist Award-winning pianist performing on Thursday, April 19; Alfred Brendel, who offers a lecture on Friday, October 21; and pianist András Schiff, who will perform with baritone Christian Gerhaher on Monday, May 14.

The Vancouver recital diet has indeed been rich, and the Vancouver Recital Society is more the pleased to provide the menu.

Paul Gravett
Executive Director

P.S. Mr. Schiff made his Canadian debut on our series at the Arts Club on Granville Island in 1982. Leila describes it as “one of the landmark concerts of my life”.

Alfred Brendel Returns To Vancouver

alfredbrendel.070346I had the privilege of presenting Alfred Brendel three times during the past ten years and each experience was memorable for a myriad of different reasons.

The first time he came to Vancouver, I remember distinctly sitting in a state of extreme nerves at YVR waiting for his plane to arrive. I so desperately wanted to have someone with me that I called the office at least three times to complain about having to go to the airport on my own.

Mr. Brendel had flown in to Vancouver two days before his concert, to check out the piano and our piano technician, and to practice on the instrument he would be playing two days later.

He is taller than I had imagined, and a true European gentleman. His terrifying demeanour dissipates when he smiles. I had heard that he had friends in Vancouver, so I said to him, “Mr. Brendel, I understand you have friends in Vancouver, so will you want to call them to make arrangements to have dinner with them?” He said “they are not in town at the moment” and before I could stop my tongue, I said “does that mean I’m stuck with you for dinner tonight?” He said, with a large grin on his face, “Yes, my dear, I’m afraid you are”.

On a subsequent visit Alfred Brendel came to our home to practice one evening. I had explained to him that we had just had our piano rebuilt and that it hadn’t yet been voiced (a very important part of the procedure). He practiced on it for about an hour and a half and when he was done, he said “your piano sounds like an unmade bed”.

It is rare to meet someone who has such a wide range of interests and knowledge. From music to wine to food to kitsch. He answers questions in great detail and never talks down. He is NEVER boring. Only fascinating. Listening to him is like reading an encyclopedia.

I would like to conclude with a quote from his fascinating book, Alfred Brendel on Music:

“What is piano playing of genius? Playing which is at once correct and bold. Its correctness tells us: that is how it has to be. Its boldness presents us with a surprising and overwhelming realization: what we had thought impossible becomes true.

Correctness can be attained by the expert. But boldness presupposes the gift of projection, which draws the audience into the orbit of one’s personality.”

To learn more about Mr. Brendel’s thoughts on music, I urge you to attend his illustrated lecture entitled Does classical music have to be entirely serious? This is a rare opportunity to experience the reflections of a truly great mind.

The lecture takes place at Roy Barnett Hall on Friday, October 21 at 8pm. Seating is limited and unreserved.  Pleasure is unrestricted.


VRS Surprise Gift Concert

Four years ago the Vancouver Recital Society launched a new venture – an annual ‘surprise gift concert’. The concerts have been held in the intimate and acoustically superb Telus Theatre in the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts. It is one of Vancouver’s most special venues for chamber music. As the person responsible for choosing the musician/s for the annual surprise, I can tell you that the pressure is on to deliver something extraordinary each time.

I have always characterized the VRS audience as being one of the most trusting and adventurous audiences on the continent, and this is borne out by the fact that well over 100 people turn up for a performance of which they have no advance knowledge. This type of event is at the very core of the VRS…which is to surprise and delight audiences who come without any pre-conceived opinions about whom or what they are going to hear.

Our surprise concert last Saturday was indeed such an event. Violinist, Pamela Frank, returned to Vancouver after an absence of 13 years and together with violinist, Arnaud Sussman, and violist, Dmitri Murath, they delighted and entranced the audience with their warmth, sparkle and deep musicality.  There was a very special atmosphere in the hall, and five days later I’m still glowing with happiness.

David Gordon Duke described the concert as “a cross between a family reunion and the best sort of salon” in his wonderful blog on the Vancouver Sun website.

Get wind of this…

I regularly receive e-newsletters from the Borletti-Buitoni Trust in London, and this most recent one contains a blog by Ramon Ortega Quero, the young Spanish oboist who will be gracing our stage at the Playhouse on Sunday, April 25.  If you don’t already have a ticket to this amazing young musician’s concert, try to finish reading his blog before you actually call the VRS or Ticketmaster.  No-one makes a more persuasive case for attending this concert than Ramon himself.  His blog highlights what it is that is so wonderful about working with young musicians on their way up.

Before you read what Mr. Quero has to say, I thought that you might like a little background on the Borletti-Buitoni Trust, or BBT, as it is known. The Borletti-Buitoni Trust was established in April 2002 to help young concert artists, in as flexible and innovative ways as possible, to develop and sustain burgeoning international careers.  Working in partnership with managers, concert promoters, broadcasters, publishers and recording companies the Trust aims to nurture selected musicians by encouraging their musical growth and providing an extended platform of opportunities which will help them gain greater public recognition.  BBT Trustees include internationally renowned pianist Mitsuko Uchida DBE.

As a presenter who delights in discovering young talent, I was canvassed to nominate a young artist in the early days of the trust.  I am happy to say that our nominee, the young Canadian baritone, Joshua Hopkins, was one of the artists they chose.   If you go on to their website you will see a fairly substantial representation of VRS alumni!

Here, then, from the BBT newsletter is Ramon’s blog:

Still on Cloud Nine

My trip starts one evening in mid-September 2007:

There we were three young oboists at Herkulessaal in Munich, after having played Strauss Concerto with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at ARD´s competition finals. The Jury came to stage, we were down where the audience sits, waiting for the result.

I was awarded first prize, something that didn´t happened at the oboe competition for 40 years! Of course, I didn´t expect it! I became the third one to get it in the competition´s history, after Heinz Holliger and Maurice Bourgue, and this means a lot. I remember from that moment I started to fly: I went to the stage to take my prize, talk to the press, have dinner with the Jury… it was a long evening and day.

I could never imagine that it would happen. I was not totally conscious of the situation that evening and the following days.  I couldn’t possibly imagine what it would mean to have got the first prize that evening. I was just 19 years old, and all was very new for me.

In the following months, I changed my residence to Germany, I got many concert invitations as a soloist, for chamber music, for playing in great orchestras as principal oboe, my manager came to me, I got the position of Principal oboe in the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra… All these things were really something that I never imagined to get as a 19-year-old! For me it was a dream that I wished to get, but never expected it so soon. My life just changed completely! Travelling everywhere for playing concerts, visiting many new cities, meeting so many different people, starting my work in the orchestra, where I have the luck to work with the greatest conductors and soloists of our time, living abroad…

It has taken me more than a year to get used to that big change, and still today I find myself dealing with things that I wouldn´t have expected so soon, like for example, right now, getting a Borletti Buitoni Trust fellowship.

This means a big help for me at the moment: We were having some contacts for CD productions with my agent, some conversations were opened, but it is really difficult today to make a project reality. With the support of BBT things are moving forwards. I have felt, from the first moment I have got the fellowship and got into the family of BBT, that it means a big push for my career.

Getting into the BBT family just gives a new air to all my projects: a CD will be released next Autumm. Probably I will take it with me on my “Rising Stars” tours, next season, where I will play on the greatest concert halls in Europe like Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Philharmonie Cologne, Konzerthaus Viena, Hamburg Elbphilharmonie, etc..

And what I feel more important is the support that BBT is already giving me:

They want to be involved in my projects, offering me all the help that they can. All the publicity that comes together with getting a prize. All their knowledge about the classical music world and market. It makes me very excited and happy to have them on my side.

I just can be so thankful for all this help, it lets me take a new breath, have new fresh ideas and continue with this life, this flying I started 2 years ago.  I am still on the air! Thanks Life!

What’s so special about ‘special’?

Each season, as we prepare our new brochure, I stew over the concept of concerts we list therein as ‘special’ concerts.  These so-called ‘special’ concerts are generally performed by artists who are well known, who will attract larger audiences (we always hope) and they are not part of any of our series concerts.  What I hate about the word ‘special’ is that it implies that the other concerts on the series are not special.  I like to think that each and every concert we present IS special, or at least has the potential of being special. That depends, of course, upon how you interpret the word special.

I believe that people who buy tickets to live events know that they are taking chances, and that the outcome could be way beyond their expectations, or alternatively, rather disappointing. Not all performances can make time stand still, but when they do, and you can feel an audience collectively holding its breath, it’s probably worth five times the price of the ticket.  The trouble is that too many presenters promise the earth, and I think that the worst thing one can do is disappoint someone who is new to the art form, because that probably guarantees that they won’t return.

The concerts we present at the Vancouver Recital Society are ‘one offs’. One performance only. One chance to be blown away. Each is unique, which is what makes it special.  So what then, is the word that we can use to replace ‘special’ for the concerts in the larger venues?  Suggestions anyone?