Vancouver offers an astonishing array of high-level classical music, featuring an endless stream of international artists that fill up the calendar from September to June.  The city has almost 20 musical institutions, and these present both distinction and balance over all genres, whether it be symphony, chamber music, solo recital, early music, or new music.  Opera also gets a new lease on life this year. Efforts by our site, the Vancouver Sun, Georgia Straight, and other local media provide the city with strong reviewing and previewing of events, often featuring 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 the more daring contemporary. Both the attractive VSO Chamber Players and New Music series continue.  Coming off a very successful 97th season, new President Kelly Tweeddale and the VSO must get more serious about finding the right conductor to fill the position of Music Director at the end of Maestro Bramwell Tovey’s tenure.   We will see a host of young conductors this season, many of which have placed highly in recent conducting competitions and, in line with current trends, two of which are female. There are also conductors who have been invited back after previous auditions with the orchestra. All will present a conventional concert: an overture or short modern work, a concerto, and a symphonic work.  While one will note interesting differences in conducting style, most of the works are standard. The Enescu First Symphony and the Shostakovich 12th are probably the biggest ventures off the beaten track. 

The fall season begins with a bit of nostalgia: recalling the splendid Rachmaninoff cycle we saw two seasons ago, pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk now joins Maestro Tovey in the famed Tchaikovsky concerto, coupled with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The music director only appears once more in the fall: in Verdi’s Requiem in November. Romanian Cristian Macelaru starts the parade of new conductors off in October, bringing the rarely performed Enescu First Symphony; young violinist Arnaud Sussmann contributes the Brahms Concerto.  The first of the ‘Maestra’s’, young Karina Canellakis, follows -- battling it out in the Berg Violin Concerto with the vivacious Karen Gomyo, and contributing Rachmaninoff on her own. Jun Markl then returns with violinist Stephan Jackiw in the Mendelssohn concerto and applies his gentle touch and sophistication to Debussy. Carlo Montenaro and pianist Andrew van Oeyen team up next in Mendelssohn. Estonian Maestra Anu Tali takes the helm in late November, naturally contributing Sibelius, paired with young Alexey Yemtsov in Rach 3. 19 year old, Seattle-born violin sensation, Simone Porter, arrives in December, collaborating in the Bruch Concerto with another new face, Russian conductor Mikhail Angrist.

In November at the Chan Centre, Poly Culture and the VSO will also present for the first time the China Philharmonic Orchestra, under conductor Long Yu and young pianist Serena Wang.  Both artists have appeared with the VSO before, but here is an opportunity to see how far this widely-praised orchestra has advanced recently.  At the beginning of October, the China National Opera Orchestra also appears at the Chan.

It is now a tradition of the VSO to have two festivals after the holidays: the New Music Festival in late January and the Spring Festival in late April. Maestro Tovey takes the guiding hand in each.  This year, the former introduces some new works by VSO-affiliates Jocelyn Morlock and Marcus Goddard, and traverses Jeffrey Ryan’s big-scale Requiem, but perhaps its most innovative feature is the two-concert collaboration with Early Music Vancouver: we hear new music written for ‘authentic’ instruments.  The Spring Festival has an appealing English theme but do not expect it to dig more than fitfully into the challenging reaches of modern British composition.  The big appeal will be James Ehnes appearing for two concerts, leading popular string pieces from the violin in one and playing the viola in Walton’s remarkable concerto in the other.  Of course, Holst’s The Planets and the ‘Last Night of the Proms’ will be there too. The one big event just after New Year is the appearance of esteemed pianist Emanuel Ax alongside Maestro Tovey, who plays both Mozart’s 16th Concerto and Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’.

The march of conductors continues unabated in the spring. Conductor Otto Tausk made a good impression last year but returns with a less than adventurous programme; the intrigue may lie in violinist Simone Lamsma’s traversal of the Shostakovich First Concerto.  Then we have the return of a young Finnish conductor of some stature, Pietari Inkinen, collaborating with a pianist well known from his previous solo appearances for VRS, Juho Pohjonen.  Somehow I wish that the conductor might have been wooed into performing some music of his homeland rather than Dvorak’s ‘New World’ Symphony; he has already recorded a full Sibelius cycle for Naxos.  The collaboration of young Israeli conductor Lahav Shani and established pianist Kirill Gerstein in Brahms’ First Piano Concerto and Schoenberg’s Pelleas and Melisande is an enticing prospect indeed, since the pianist’s latest recording secured one of Gramophone’s ‘top picks’ of the month.  At the same time, the chances of landing Shani here are now remote, since the conductor has just accepted the Rotterdam Philharmonic music directorship for 2018.  

Maestro Tovey takes over the reins for an all Brahms concert with the revered pianist Garrick Ohlsson in late February and then for an ‘Americana’ program two weeks later.  In the latter, ultra-talented Alessio Bax plays the famous MacDowell Second Piano Concerto; the conductor performs Copland’s Third Symphony.

From March onward, conductors Joshua Weilerstein and James Gaffigan return for at least the third time, David Danzmayer making his debut.  Popular local icon Jon Kimura Parker plays Beethoven with Weilerstein, while the irrepressible and widely-heralded pianist Jeremy Denk performs Mozart with Danzmayer: the conductor also contributes Shostakovich’s Twelfth Symphony.  A Norwegian violinist I much admire, Henning Kraggerud, is the soloist in Mozart with Gaffigan.  In early May, celebrated Canadian pianist Louis Lortie shows up for a special solo recital, performing the complete Chopin Preludes and Etudes.  Later, energetic conductor Alexandre Bloch returns for a second concert, this time with innovative young pianist Jonathan Biss.  Maestro Tovey completes the season, first with an all-Beethoven concert, featuring the Hoebig-Moroz Trio in the ‘Triple Concerto’ paired with the ‘Eroica’, and second, with his customary return to Mahler.  The closing concert features Mahler’s First, with outstanding violinist Baiba Skride adding the Korngold concerto. 



For the past three decades, artistic director Leila Getz has consistently been able to find the most promising young musicians to place alongside the world’s most celebrated artists.  This mix has yielded concert seasons of true variety and innovation and this unique contribution was acknowledged by Musical America last year in honouring Leila as a top ‘influencer.’  

One innovation this year is starting with Ksenija Sidorova’s accordion recital: we have certainly never seen that before!  The big event of the fall is the appearance of mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato on November 30th at the Orpheum, an occasion we have looked forward to for years.  In between we have two distinguished returnees, the Danish String Quartet in October and ‘electric’ virtuoso pianist Behzod Abduraimov in mid-November.  Appearances by promising Hungarian cellist István Várdai (playing Kodaly and Ligeti), and ‘rising star’ pianist Anna Fedorova, round out the fall.

An exciting two-day ‘Winterlude’ takes place in late January – 3 concerts in 2 days – featuring two of the world’s most special artists, cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and pianist Alexander Melnikov. A treasure for sure will be the former’s Complete Bach Cello Suites, while Melnikov’s solo recital features Rachmaninoff and Debussy.  Both get together in the final concert for Beethoven and Chopin Cello Sonatas.

The rest of the spring season is wide-ranging to say the least, taking us from the first ‘duo’ vocal recital ever sponsored by VRS, with tenor Florian Boesch and soprano Miah Persson, all the way to the lovely ‘plucked strings’ of mandolinist Avi Avital and guitarist Miloš Karadaglić. Few will forget the stunning previous appearances by each of these artists.  Avital’s February appearance is with the Banff Competition-winning Dover Quartet, who have also been most impressive in their concerts here.  From late March to May, celebrated pianists rule the day: Paul Lewis and Murray Perahia both arrive, followed by Javier Perianes (a very sensitive artists who originally debuted for VRS in 2008) and the young British darling, Benjamin Grosvenor, who now makes his third appearance.  Recitals by returning violinist Benjamin Beilman and estimable young cellist Harriet Krijgh at the end of February also are part of the spring festivities.



We have been long accustomed to visits from the world’s most celebrated ensembles under the auspices of Vancouver’s oldest chamber music society.  This season almost offers a free trip to New York – without all the parking hassles of course.  A full seven of the 10 concerts feature ensembles vital to that city’s musical activity: the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Centre, the long-celebrated Emerson Quartet, and the Han-Finckel-Setzer Trio.  In fact, the season also leads off with one of the Emerson’s accomplished local products: the Escher Quartet.  The young and talented Israeli Chamber Project follows in October, exploring an intriguing variety of modern Trios.  The Chamber Music Society (CMS) presents their first concert in November -- featuring Quintets and Sextets -- showing once again this organization’s ability to cover an exceptional variety of repertoire that one seldom hears in concert.  Along with Brahms and Mozart, they play the original sextet version of Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht, perhaps complementing the Escher’s opening traversal of the same composer’s First Quartet.  The legendary Takacs Quartet make their annual pilgrimage at the end of the year, returning to one of their overriding specialties – Beethoven.   They have played this composer many times for us before but, judging by last year’s Op. 59, No. 3, there are always new revelations. 

The CMS are back again in January for Faure and Brahms Piano Quartets, in March for a French programme including Chausson’s Concert, and for the final concert of the season in May, featuring Bartok, Shostakovich’s PianoTrio and the famous Mozart Clarinet Quintet.  The new item that the Emerson Quartet brings to us in late March is the first Grieg Quartet.  Just two weeks later, Han-Finckel-Setzer tackle Beethoven and Schubert’s greatest Piano Trios.  The only European representation is the Prazak Quartet, who have given us authoritative and authentically-Czech playing for two decades, and bring along Mozart, Beethoven and Janacek this time.



The Chopin Society expends great efforts to bring us pianists that are both distinguished and aristocratic, most of whom are also Chopin specialists. There are many exciting moments in this year’s season. First, the appearance in November of Canadian Charles Richard Hamelin -- who took home the Silver Medal in last year’s Warsaw Chopin Competition, ending a long drought for Canada in this celebrated event.  He will give an all-Chopin Concert.  He is preceded by none other than the patrician Ewa Poblocka, a distinguished recording artist over the decades and a prize winner in the 1980 Chopin Competition, playing more Chopin in the October opener.  

Equal excitement comes at the end of April, with the return of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet.  After what we saw last time, this is a concert not to miss: Bavouzet one of the very best of all current pianists, cultivating drama, virtuosity and insight, and playing his specialties: Haydn, Beethoven, Ravel and Debussy.  Another pianist of great maturity and wisdom, Sergei Babayan, follows at the end of May.  This concert includes more Chopin but, more important, a performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

Speaking of exalted pianism, one probably would not want to miss the appearance of the celebrated Tchaikovsky Competition-winner Denis Matsuev at the Chan Centre on October 20, although his political persuasion may be of concern to some.



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.  It has achieved more exposure in the last two years under the leadership of Matthew White, really taking ‘early music’ to the public and establishing Christ Church Cathedral as a principal residence. Part of the recent success of EMV has doubtlessly come from the ability to pool resources with other music organizations for specific concerts, typically the Pacific Baroque Orchestra (PBO), but more intriguingly this season, the VSO.  Another factor is a much stronger free-flow of distinguished musicians throughout the Pacific Northwest.  Thus, esteemed violinist Monica Huggett appears twice again this season after just performing at the EMV Summer Festival a few weeks ago. 

Soprano Amanda Forsythe impressed greatly in her previous Handel oratorio appearances.  In the opening September concert, she brings her characteristic cut-and-thrust and emotional resonance to selected arias of Handel’s London; the Pacific Baroque under Alexander Weimann collaborate. One recalls the British ensemble Fretwork fondly from their many stellar Virgin recordings of the 1990s – and it is our pleasure to welcome them the next month. Co-sponsored with Portland Baroque and Pacific MusicWorks, possibly the most intriguing concert of the fall is ‘Breathtaking’. This includes a recently composed piece for authentic instruments by Greek composer Calliope Tsoupaki, and features soprano Hana Blažíková, cornetist Bruce Dickey, violinist Monica Huggett and lutenist Stephen Stubbs. As Dickey states, ‘The program is intended to show the wonderful affinity and similarity of the cornetto and the human voice. Czech soprano Hana Blažíková has the most cornetto-friendly voice I have ever encountered’.  One always enjoys the Festive Cantatas for Christmas, and the year ends with five soloists joining the Pacific Baroque and Maestro Weimann in Bach’s Magnificat and his popular ‘Wachet Auf.’ 

After Spanish soprano Raquel Andeuza and Ensemble La Galanta take us through ‘Locura et Tormenti’ to affirm the cruel cold of January, we get two further installments of ‘New Music for Old Instruments’ – this time in collaboration with the VSO’s New Music Festival. In early February, Monica Hugget again joins the PBO in a concert of early classical symphonies.  Then, March offers two vocal ensembles that many have waited for: Stille Antico (some have not yet recovered from their striking visit last time), and the legendary Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.  The season ends the way it began, with a delightful set of arias, this time from Henry Purcell’s era, with very accomplished soprano Karina Gauvin and Les Boreades.



This is the Vancouver Opera’s ‘experimental’ season, putting three ‘big’ productions together in festival format in late spring 2017, and foregoing its previous full-year, 4 opera, season. Fortunately, this does not mean that the rest of the year will be empty: a youthful production of Hansel and Gretel will get a fine run at the Playhouse in November-December as will Verdi’s Macbeth, a co-production with ‘PuSh’ International Performing Arts Festival and IL CENTRO Italian Cultural Centre, starting mid-January.  So, we actually end up with 5 productions total, one more than before.  The new format involves a closer integration of the QE Theatre and the Playhouse.  Three of the productions are in the Playhouse, which avoids the cost of a large-scale production, the smaller seating per show being offset by increasing the number of performances.  During the spring festival, there will sometimes be different productions on the same day in both venues.  Other more informal operatic events are planned for the season.

The three festival productions are Verdi’s Otello, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, with the new contemporary opera being Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking. They will run together for three weeks starting April 28. Jonathan Darlington conducts Otello with Michael Cavanagh directing, Clifton Forbis as Otello, Erin Wall as Desdemona and Gregory Dahl as IagoJon.  Darlington also conducts the company premiere of Dead Man Walking, with direction by Joel Ivany, Daniel Okulitch as Joseph De Rocher, J'nai Bridges as Sister Helen Prejean and the venerable Judith Forst as Mrs. Patrick De Rocher.  This is a new production. Conductor Leslie Dala will take over for a sparkling new production of Figaro, Rachel Peake directing.



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 Vancouver Bach Choir.  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.

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. The details of each of the above organization’s concert seasons can be accessed on the right hand side of the VCM homepage.


© Geoffrey Newman 2016