The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra has never given up on its mission to educate young people

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

That was several prime ministers ago, remember, and today’s Vancouver Symphony Orchestra performs in a different room with different musicians under a different conductor. But like sister orchestras across Canada, it has never abandoned its mission to educate young people.

Of course, most of us in 5th grade thought of music more as entertainment than education and mostly as a way to avoid math class.

Sad to say, society as a whole has come to agree with us tweens. Music no longer plays such an important role in our education as it once did and continues to play in Europe. That’s why, in 2009, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra decided to open its own music school, right next to the Orpheum Theater where it regularly gives concerts.

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

It is not a school that focuses solely on the orchestra and its literature, or on traditional school-aged students. Its youngest inhabitants are three months old and their parents can also study there. About 30 faculty members play in the orchestra. The program encompasses jazz and world music as well as Western classical music, with training in traditional Chinese instruments included as a reflection of Vancouver’s rapidly growing Asian population.

As part of their work schedule, members of the orchestra visit more than 100 schools a year and present a series of concerts for children aged 4 to 11 and another series for toddlers up to 5 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. At the concert I attended recently under the musical direction of Otto Tausk, there was a wide variety of ages in the audience, including a significant number of young people.

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

Much of its current quality can be attributed to the long musical leadership of Tausk’s predecessor, British conductor Bramwell Tovey, whose portrait hangs in the School of Music in memory of his pivotal role in its founding.

Tovey made a long-term commitment to the orchestra of a genre rarely seen in this era of jet-set musicians. Thanks to COVID-19, Tausk in Vancouver and Gustavo Gimeno in Toronto are shuttling between homes in the Netherlands and jobs in Canada.

I had heard Tausk conduct his orchestra before COVID and was happy to see my impression of his solid musicality confirmed during a subscription concert combining Beethoven’s monumental “Ninth Symphony” with Beethoven’s “G Major Piano Concerto”. Ravel, the latter featuring Angela Cheng as a soloist. .

Typical of today’s stick agitators, the Dutch maestro is an international musician, having conducted in places like Australia, Denmark, Italy, Russia and the UK.

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

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

And he survives the pandemic, much to Elster’s relief.

Fifty-nine days after starting work in January 2020, she had to announce the season and school closure, with a projected loss of $7 million for the remainder of the year. “We are committed to keeping the music going,” she said. So the orchestra and its musicians continued to perform and teach, virtually at first, then in numbers permitted by COVID regulations.

“But live entertainment is what we do best,” Elster said, and a nice brochure for the upcoming season suggests the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra is back in full swing.

It’s a much better orchestra now than the one I heard when I was 10, although in a way I still consider it my orchestra, the one that opened my ears to live symphonic music. . It is good to remember that the opening of the ears continues.


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


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