Vancouver offers an astonishing array of high-level classical music, featuring an endless stream of international artists that fill up a calendar for the core months.  The city has more than 15 musical institutions, and these provide both distinction and balance over all genres, whether it be symphony, chamber music, solo recital, early music, new music or opera.  Efforts by our site, the Vancouver Sun, Georgia Straight, and others provide the city with strong reviewing and previewing of events, augmenting these with interviews with celebrated musicians and artistic directors.  As with many centers, Vancouver is exceptionally youth oriented, offering tickets for students and/or individuals under 35 for around $15.


These days, a symphony orchestra must do everything for everybody within a community, so we find the full range of concerts from ‘pops’ through more daring contemporary. Both the attractive VSO Chamber Players and New Music series continue.  Coming off a successful 96th season, the VSO does face two important challenges: first, finding a new President to replace Jeff Alexander who moved to the Chicago Symphony, and second, auditioning a variety of young conductors who might be in the running to fill the position of Music Director at the end of Maestro Bramwell Tovey’s tenure. (Ed., Kelly Tweeddale has just been appointed President of the VSO on September 23, 2015.)

The fall season opens with an appropriate bit of nostalgia: violinist Miriam Freid joins Maestro Tovey in the Beethoven concerto, a work she first recorded almost 50 years ago. An equally exciting part of the opener is the world premiere of Vivian Fung's 'Biennale Snapshots'. Many of the concerts feature a young soloist or conductor and keep to a common format: one short ‘modern’ work, a standard concerto and a well-known symphony.  Violinist Tianwa Yang, the ECHO Klassik Instrumentalist of the Year for 2015 plays Paganini in the following concert.   It will be good to see pianists Ingrid Fliter and Anne-Marie McDermott again, and later on, the irrepressible Stephen Hough -- possibly the finest British pianist around.  Violinist Sarah Chang returns in December to play the Dvorak concerto, accompanied by the accomplished young Finnish maestro Pietari Inkinen.

2016 is welcomed in by visits from now-celebrated conductor John Storgards (doing Zemlinsky) with popular violinist Augustin Hadelich (doing Tchaikovsky), and from excellent pianists Simon Trpceski (Liszt) and Canada’s Louis Lortie (Saint-Saens).  Legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman will arrive for a ‘special’.  One concert that intrigues me sees pianist Alexander Melnikov join venerable conductor Christopher Seaman in Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto and Walton’s First Symphony.  Bramwell Tovey also conducts a more exotic ‘modern’ concert that includes Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 5; he also moves through Sibelius’ 2nd and 7th symphonies elsewhere. We will be able to see the Victoria Symphony (in its 75th Anniversary Season) before the Spring Festival begins in early April.  The festival features the music of Brahms and Wagner.

The last concerts of the year feature stunning violinist Isabelle Faust playing the Bartok 2nd, followed by a recital with Canadian superstar violinist James Ehnes.  Then we have two popular young returnees, pianist Joyce Yang (playing Mozart) with conductor Joshua Weilerstein.  Nicola Benedetti and concertmaster Dale Barltrop get together for a unique chamber orchestra presentation, before Maestro Tovey steps in to complete the season with three concerts featuring Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Shostakovich.  Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is performed this time round.


Over the past 35 years, artistic director Leila Getz has consistently been able to find the most promising young artists to place alongside the world’s most distinguished mature artists.  This mix yields concert seasons of true variety and innovation, and it is wonderful to see artists who originally were sponsored by VRS continue to return here in their celebrated prime. Sir Andras Schiff was right there at the beginning of VRS, and he returns again for more concerts this year.

The two concerts in the fall season that feature absolutely unrivalled musicianship are those by pianist Lief Ove Andsnes and by the Arcanto Quartet.  They occur within 4 days of each other in November.  The most eye-opening of the concerts is likely the October event with American pianist Jeremy Denk, whose praises have been sung endlessly and who gives one of the most eclectic programmes you will ever hear. The four younger performers chosen already have a strong pedigree and yield an especially nice variety: cellist Maximilian Hornung, clarinetist Raphaël Sévère, violinist Caroline Goulding and the string ensemble, Apollon Musagète Quartet. 

The spring features two mini festivals: first, the two-concert appearance of Sir Andras Schiff, which completes the traversal of the ‘last’ sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert begun last year (February 7, 9); and second, the three-concert ‘Schubertiade’, which also features the last 3 sonatas of Schubert, the string quintet, and other works (April 12, 14, 15).  The latter involves distinguished young pianists Inon Barnatan, Jonathan Biss & Kuok-Wai Lio, cellist Gary Hoffman, baritone Randall Scarlata, and the Doric String Quartet.  Perhaps not well known is the fact that Hoffman was actually born in Vancouver, and made his Wigmore Hall debut at age 15.

The other spring concerts easily maintain these standards with the two February concerts of the always-penetrating pianist Richard Goode and the award-winning Tetzlaff Trio, and the three exalted vocal partnerships later on: Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis, Ian Bostridge and Wenwen Du, and Bryn Terfel and Natalia Katyukova.  The two young performers are pianist Roman Rabinovich and a piano trio that impressed us greatly on their VRS debut a few years ago: the Sitkovetsky Trio.


We have long become accustomed to ongoing visits from the world’s most celebrated string quartets under the auspices of Vancouver’s oldest chamber music society (founded in 1948). This season features the customary mix of European and North American ensembles, leading off with the third visit of the magnetic Pavel Haas Quartet from Prague.  This is followed by the young Dover Quartet, who has jumped into prominence since winning the Banff International String Quartet Competition so decisively a few years ago.  We have always admired British cellist Raphael Wallfisch and, in the third concert of the fall, we will have our first visit from the Trio Shaham-Erez-Wallfisch,

The presence of the Emerson Quartet and Lincoln Center music is everywhere after the holidays, bringing with them their own distinctive style of American music making.  The Emersons and the Han-Finckel-Setzer Trio start the show in January, followed by two separate visits by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.  We are also greatly looking forward to the return of the Takacs, Szymanowski and Mandelring Quartets later on, three European ensembles that have never failed to impress.  The Takacs is indisputably one of the world’s greatest quartets, while the beautifully-burnished tone and rustic charm of the Szymanowski is captivating.


The Chopin Society complements the above organizations very well by expending great efforts to bring us pianists that are both distinguished and aristocratic, most of which are also Chopin specialists. The clear highlight of the year is the appearance of Brazilian Nelson Freire in May 2016, a concert that no one should miss.  Freire is one of the world’s greatest living pianists.  The other three pianists, though no longer particularly in the spotlight, are artists of compelling maturity and wisdom.  These include Jorge Luis Prats and Denes Varjon in the fall and Dina Yoffe in the spring.


Early Music Vancouver is one of the founding early music organizations in North America, consistently bringing the highest level of ‘historically informed’ performance to the city.  Closely associated with the Pacific Baroque Orchestra under Alexander Weimann, it has undertaken an enviable string of large-scale Handel performances in recent years, building on their 2012 recording of Orlando that received the highest level of international acclaim.  Under the leadership of Matthew White, this season continues to see a stronger integration of the musical resources available throughout the Pacific Northwest. 

The season begins with an attractive Pacific Baroque concert that features of two of Bach’s Brandenberg Concertos.  The two large-scale events in the fall are Monteverdi’s Vespers in October, directed by Stephen Stubbs of Seattle’s Pacific MusicWorks, and Michael Pretorius’ Christmas Vespers directed by David Fallis, with La Rose des Vents, Montreal’s newest early music group.  Of compelling interest as well is the morning appearance of Julliard415 with Nicolas McGegan (co-sponsored with Music in the Morning). More intimate and varied concerts in the fall include Ensemble Caprice, Music from the Court of Versailles (with Byron Schenkman), and the Dialogos Ensemble.

The big events of the spring are, of course, more Handel, this time Apollo e Dafne, with the Pacific Baroque, and the appearances of two of the world’s most celebrated ensembles: Tafelmusik, and Phillipe Herreweghe & Collegium Vocale Gent (in Lagrime di San Pietro). A return visit by masterly soprano Dorothee Mields only adds to the pleasure, as does a concert by the Victoria Baroque and a Pacific Baroque presentation of Handel’s Royal Fireworks Music.



As is all too well known now, this is the last year that the Vancouver Opera will run a full-year, 4 opera season; it will switch to a festival design next year, putting all productions together in the late spring.  This year emerges as pretty well in line with the previous ones, featuring two classic operas alongside one new experiment and a musical.

Verdi’s Rigoletto starts thing off in late September, featuring the return of sensational soprano Simone Osborne and baritone Gordon Hawkins.  Then for a complete change of pace: Dark Sisters, a recent socially-conscious opera by Nico Muhly with libretto by Stephen Karam, which focuses on five "sister-wives" in a polygamous Mormon compound, all married to a stern "Prophet" who uses the language of righteousness to hold them in fearful bondage.  This black portrayal runs for 10 performances starting in late November in the smaller Vancouver Playhouse.

Back to Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in March, which runs for six performances and features Richard Troxell and Adam Luther as Pinkerton, Julius Ahn as Goro, Allyson McHardy as Suzuki, Gregory Dahl as Sharpless.  Cio-cio-san is split between Mihoko Kinoshita and Jee Hye Han.  The closing musical is Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Evita at the end of April. Winner of 7 Tony Awards, Evita is the story of the charismatic and controversial Eva Perón, whose beauty and ambition vaulted her from poverty to power as the First Lady of Argentina.


One can never forget the forty-five years of inspiring concerts at Ryerson United Church given by the Vancouver Chamber Choir under conductor Jon Washburn.  There is another full season awaiting us this year. There are also the engaging concerts of the award-winning Vancouver Cantata Singers, the Chor Leoni Men’s Choir, and the Bach Choir, who will celebrate their 85th anniversary this year.  For those who enjoy music ‘early’, there is the enterprising Music in the Morning series (10am) at the Vancouver Academy of Music, featuring a variety of outstanding Canadian and international chamber groups and soloists.  There is more chamber music available from Vetta Chamber Music and West Coast Chamber Music.  All the performers here are first class, and it is a very special season for the former since it is their 30th anniversary.

We have been especially impressed with the concerts and festivals put on by Vancouver New Music in the last few years, and things continue on the same desirable path this year.  Something tells me that ‘new music’ is on an upturn in the city.   There are also the adventurous presentations by Turning Point Ensemble, Music on Main, and Müzewest Concerts.  The West Coast Symphony, the Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra, and the UBC Symphony all offer adventurous seasons of their own.  Opera also flourishes increasingly well at UBC and we must not forget City Opera Vancouver and a number of other smaller opera presenters just starting out.   There are of course a vast number of other events which take place under the auspices of the UBC School of Music.


© Geoffrey Newman 2015