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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?


Renée Fleming was recently on a short tour of South Africa, and as luck would have it, I was in Johannesburg on the weekend she sang in Pretoria at the Opera House.  The two cities are less than an hour apart by car, and I’m sure that at least half the audience drove from Johannesburg and its surroundings.  She performed with the 71 piece Kwazulu Natal Orchestra, with William Eddins (currently Music Director of the Edmonton Symphony) at the helm.  Both she and Maestro Eddins had appeared in Pretoria before in the early 1980’s when they entered the UNISA Competition.  So this was a somewhat sentimental return.

Ms. Fleming looked and sounded radiant.  She held her audience in thrall from beginning to end.  The orchestra sounded really good, and she had a wonderful choir of local singers on stage with her.  In the final of her four encores she introduced two young tenors who performed Verdi’s “drinking” song with her. The audience went nuts.  She then moved on to Cape Town the next morning and I ended up sitting across the aisle from her in the plane.  I gather that in each of the cities in which she performed she had a chorus of local singers, and she also told me that she had been enormously impressed with the four young students that she had heard in a Master Class in Pretoria.

I didn’t attend the Cape Town performance but the city was abuzz with talk of Renée Fleming.  Apparently all three of her performances (one in Durban, one in Pretoria and one in Cape Town) all sold out within 24 hours of the tickets being put on sale.

In response to a question

In response to Deborah Hobson’s question as to what the artists like to do after a performance, I would have to say that, most often, they like to eat and unwind.  Many musicians don’t eat very much before they go on stage, so if it’s an evening concert it means a late night supper for them (which can be challenging to find restaurants that stay open late) or, if it’s an afternoon concert, they generally eat a largish breakfast and then wait until dinner time.  We’ve only ever presented one performer who expected supper before the concert (which was quite a shock, I can tell you. He was staying with me and my husband and kids, and I was completely unprepared, so he ended up making his own supper!).  Sometimes musicians attend sponsor events following their performances and we always request that something fairly substantial is put in front of them. Most of our performers are very gracious that way.

Her cup runneth over

Remember that iPod Touch that I confessed to stealing from my husband? Well, now that I’m back in the swing of things, I barely get time to listen to it…and in any case, I’ve been listening to Murray Perahia practising in my living room for the past few days. Murray and I have exchanged quite a few stories (I told him he should write a book when he retires) and one of the items of conversation that came up was concerts in Italy. So, I told him the story of an Italian pianist who played on our series a number of years ago. She is one of my favourites and I loaded this iPod with her recording of Scarlatti Sonatas, which is think is one of the very best. If you know your Scarlatti, you may know whom I’m talking about!  In any case, she performed on our series at the Vancouver Playhouse, and she insisted on being paid in cash at intermission.  This was generally the custom in the country from which she originated.

It was not an insignificant amount of cash, and I asked her manager from Columbia Artists, who was traveling with her, to come with me to the bank to collect the cash. At intermission, both of us went backstage at the Playhouse to deliver the money.  I told her that I was very nervous about giving her the money, because even though we could lock the door to her dressing room, I felt that it still wasn’t safe to leave cash like that lying around.  “Oh no”, she said “you don’t understand!”  Pulling open the front of her blouse, she stuffed the money in her bra and played the second half of the concert with the money on her person, as it were.

Murray Perahia has some wild fans!

A few weeks ago, I was sitting at YVR waiting for a flight to Seattle – Frankfurt – Johannesburg – Cape Town for a reunion with my friends from the College of Music in Cape Town.  My husband recently won an iPod Touch which I quickly appropriated, so now I have finally joined the iPod world, and I’m loving it.  In any case, there I was at the airport listening to Mozart, having downloaded Murray Perahia’s complete recording of the concerti, and I was reminded of an incident on a trip to South Africa about 18 years ago involving Murray Perahia.  Books and CDs cost an absolute fortune in South Africa, so I usually travel with CDs to give friends.  I, and my then-teenage daughter, Sara, were driving from Cape Town to Hermanus (a coastal town about 80 miles from Cape Town) to spend a week with some friends.

The route winds over a very beautiful mountain pass with a lookout at the top.  We parked the car and locked the doors…but forgot to close the rear window.  There are signs all over the place warning of baboons and to keep car windows closed and food out of sight, but we hadn’t noticed that we had left the window open.  So there we were, a few yards away from the car with our cameras in hand, when, all of a sudden a baboon entered the car through the open rear window.  I watched in horror as it rummaged through my handbag which I had left in the back seat.  Out came my wallet.  He tasted it and threw it out of the window.  Next, the passport, which couldn’t have tasted very nice either because it soon followed the wallet (thanks heavens!).  I stood shrieking, much to my daughter’s embarrassment and drew a crowd of onlookers.  Next, the baboon, getting fed up with the fact that he couldn’t find anything edible, seized a Murray Perahia CD, climbed out of the window and ran around the parking lot with it in his hands.  I followed, shouting “oh what a publicity shot!”   The baboon disappeared into the bushes and I’m sure that generations of baboons in the area of Sir Lowry’s pass have grown up listening to Mozart.  My friends in Hermanus never got their gift.

And whilst on the subject of Murray Perahia, it is he who introduced me to YouTube on his last visit to Vancouver. He wanted me to see Dudley Moore doing an imitation of Peter Pears singing Benjamin Britten songs (if you haven’t seen it you really should check it out…you’ll find it under Benjamin Britten).  I have to confess that after that introduction, I spent hours glued to my computer exploring the great musicians of the past and present on YouTube.  And now I’ve even found another weakness of mine, Tony Hancock!