Vancouver has always offered up a splendid menu of classical music, featuring a stream of local and international artists that fill up the calendar from September to June. In the last three years, concert offerings have increased even further. The city now has almost 30 musical institutions, and these have further augmented distinction and balance over all musical genres, whether this be orchestral, chamber music, solo recital, or vocal. Both Early Music and New Music have expanded their audiences considerably, and this has created a new and real synergy for the city and its performers. Opera is springing back in many directions after the Vancouver Opera’s reorganization, with contributions by smaller presenters too. This season is special as well since it marks the centenary of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, with additional celebratory events scheduled. Efforts by our site, the Vancouver Sun, Georgia Straight, and other local media provide the city with strong previewing and reviewing 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.



This season is indeed the special one for the VSO: it both celebrates the orchestra’s 100th birthday and welcomes its new Music Director, Dutch conductor Otto Tausk. Events at the season’s opening and close, and in January, all bring occasion to the centenary. As in the past, the VSO explores a wide range of classical repertoire – with the highest quality of established and up-and-coming soloists – but also fuses this with a full range of ‘pops’ concerts and lighter musical events. One important change in scheduling is the removal of the traditional Monday concert and replacing it with a Friday concert, so events largely take place from Friday to Sunday now. There will also be a new experimental series of ‘short’ concerts starting at 6:30pm. The attractive VSO Chamber Players and ‘Tea and Trumpets’ series continue. In his first year, Otto Tausk will only appear selectively: there will be a wide variety of visiting conductors and, yes, beloved Bramwell Tovey returns for 2 pairs of concerts.

The September opening celebrations feature a celebrity appearance by grande diva Renée Fleming and a 20th century concert, both conducted by Tausk on consecutive nights. In the latter, an Edward Top premiere and Stravinsky’s complete Firebird joins hands with Poulenc’s brightly-lit Double Piano Concerto, with Dutch sensations Lucas and Arthur Jussen. A week later, the maestro joins distinguished French pianist Cedric Tiberghien in the Bartok 3rd concerto, and also takes on Beethoven’s 7th. October features two important concerts of violin concertos: Karen Gomyo performs the Brahms while Scott St. John visits the Korngold. Pianist Marc-André Hamelin also arrives at the beginning of the month to play Mozart with enterprising young conductor Xian Zhang (one recalls her BBC Proms debut with her own Milan orchestra). Mozart may seem to be somewhat light for Hamelin but, if the past is any guide, watch for the soloist’s ‘modernist’ cadenzas. Tchaikovsky’s ‘Little Russian’ Symphony is also on the programme.

Otto Tausk returns in mid-November for the big choral concert – an interesting choice of Dvorak’s beautiful Stabat Mater – and then accompanies the very distinguished Baibe Skride at the end of the month in the challenging Gubaidulina Violin Concerto. Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony is also played. The important concert just before Christmas festivities take over has the venerable Yefim Bronfman playing Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto with well-loved conductor Jun Markl. One still recalls the very fine Beethoven concerto cycle Bronfman gave here a few years ago.

The VSO 100th Anniversary celebrations again lead off the New Year with special concerts on January 9, 10 and 26 (the latter is the exact date the orchestra was formed), plus a celebrity visit by violinist Itzhak Perlman on the 23rd – playing the Mendelssohn concerto. Tausk will conduct the later dates, while finding time to give a two-concert version of the VSO New Music Festival. Works by French/ Canadian composers Claude Vivier, Nicole Lizée, and Henri Dutilleux are performed in the first event while pieces by Emily Doolittle, Bo Sandstrom and John Luther Adams comprise the latter.

Bramwell Tovey returns at the beginning of February in a performance of Bruckner’s 6th Symphony. He comes back for a second visit at the beginning of May to premiere his VSO-commissioned Concerto for Orchestra and collaborate with the celebrated Louis Lortie in Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto. February also has interesting Scandinavian hues through the appearance of Swedish conductor Elvind Gullberg Jensen, performing Brahms 4th and collaborating with the excellent Chad Hoopes in the Dvorak concerto, and the wonderfully-characterful Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud, who plays and directs a concert on his own.

After French pianist David Kadouch arrives to play Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto in mid-March, Otto Tausk returns for a big part of his assignment, starting with the last 3 symphonies of Mozart (Tania Miller also adds Mozart’s 35th in the following concert), and carrying on with the 4-concert Spring Festival from April 5 – 13. It is possibly difficult to find much of a musical link through the works of the festival, though the general motif is ‘the force of music in changing society’. It combines Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream with two full concerts of Russian repertoire, also venturing to George Gershwin and Charles Ives. Pianist Stewart Goodyear performs the Gershwin concerto while Rosanne Philippens plays Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2.

In May, Tausk directs a Wagner/ Prokofiev concert, and explores French colour in an outing with Debussy’s Images and two short pieces by Lili Boulanger; young violinist Kerson Leung contributes standard French showpieces. Up-and-coming Mayuko Kamio then plays both Bach and Mozart violin concertos in collaboration with VSO Conductor Laureate Kazuyoshi Akiyama. A celebration of the musical inspirations of the VSO’s current Composer-in-Residence, Jocelyn Morlock, occurs on May 18.

The season finale features Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra and the North American premiere of Michel van der Aa’s Concerto for Violin and Cello: Nicolas Wright and Harriet Krijgh are the soloists. Centenary events are capped off by a gala celebration with Tausk and iconic Canadian Violinist James Ehnes on June 11.



For almost four decades, artistic director Leila Getz’s discerning eye has always found the most promising young musicians to exhibit alongside the world’s most celebrated artists. This mix has yielded concert seasons of true variety and innovation, and this has been recognized widely in international circles. For those who might dream of spending a few months attending concerts at London’s Wigmore Hall, this is about the closest thing to it. One typically ends each season saying this was undoubtedly Leila’s ‘best’, only to say exactly the same thing at the end of the next season.

There could hardly be any doubts about the stature of the artists appearing in the fall. For piano, the iconic Evgeny Kissin makes a rare appearance in October – playing Chopin, Schumann, and Rachmaninoff – followed the next month by one of the most lauded (and thoughtful) young pianists before us, Igor Levitt. The magic touch of Andrea Lucchesini – performing Schubert’s B-flat major sonata – is up next, with Paul Lewis arriving in December to perform a third concert in his Haydn-Beethoven-Brahms project. He returns again in March for a concluding recital.

The two fall vocal concerts maintain the same exalted level: captivating up-and-coming soprano Julia Bullock leads off October with a mixed programme that includes American repertoire, followed by the return of the estimable Simon Keenlyside (with Malcolm Martineau). Chamber music also makes a fine showing: a September opening concert with the young Castalian Quartet, while the wonderful Jerusalem Quartet pay another visit (they have been an absolute staple of VRS concerts for almost 2 decades), collaborating with violinist Pinchas Zukerman and his cellist/wife Amanda Forsythe in a unique concert of romantic ‘sextets’.

Other than the return of Paul Lewis and a much-awaited-for Russian programme from Yevgeny Sudbin in March, many of the 2019 outings feature young ‘next generation’ artists of exceptional promise: pianists Zoltán Fejérvári, Filippo Gorini, Andrew Tyson, and 20-year-old Dutch/Finnish cellist Jonathan Roozeman. Mercurial and dazzling custodian of the keyboard Behzod Abduraimov also makes his fourth visit, offering the Liszt Sonata and Prokofiev. Possibly the most interesting chamber music concert features the ‘authentic’ Chiarscuro Quartet with fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout – co-sponsored with Early Music Vancouver. Before this, we have the lovely-toned Danish String Quartet, while another visit from the discerning Tetzlaff Trio rounds off the season at the end of April.



We have been long accustomed to visits from the world’s most celebrated ensembles under the auspices of Vancouver’s oldest chamber music society. Four legendary ensembles that have been long-term staples of the organization’s offerings appear again this year, each bringing impressive repertoire: the Emerson Quartet, the Han-Finckel-Setzer Trio, the Takacs Quartet, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. All but the Emersons appear in the fall, following an adventurous opening concert from the full-toned and virtuosic Pacifica Quartet.

After the New Year, the novelties begin with the Vancouver debut of the fine Ehnes Quartet (violinist James Ehnes being our quintessential Canadian musical icon), and move to Bohemia immediately, with the Prazak and Zemlinsky Quartets arriving together to play two sextets and Mendelssohn’s Octet. (One might recall when the revered Smetana and Janacek Quartets got together for the Octet and produced one of the most scintillating recordings ever.) But the Czech contribution does not stop there: the Smetana Trio follows in the next concert, playing Dvorak’s ‘Dumky’ Trio, of course. Equally fascinating is the March appearance by the Juilliard Quartet, who have not performed here for over three decades, and the first visit of the excellent young British ensemble, the Elias Quartet, to close out the season. For sheer interest and novelty, it would be difficult to equal the offerings of the second half of this concert season anywhere.



The Vancouver Chopin Society has devoted great effort to following recent Chopin Competition winners and presenting pianists that can provide distinctive and authoritative insights into Chopin as well as other composers. Fresh off their 20th anniversary season, it is with great excitement that the society welcomes back Canadian Charles Richard Hamelin for the opening November recital. Hamelin took home the Silver Medal in the 2015 Warsaw Chopin Competition and made an absolutely sterling impression in his Vancouver debut. His current recital includes Chopin’s Four Ballades. He is followed a week later by Moscow-trained Nikolay Khozyainov, who won the Dublin International Piano Competition in 2012 and is an embodiment of youthful energy and technical virtuosity. His recital includes Debussy, Stravinsky and Chopin’s B minor Sonata.

After the New Year, Lukáš Vondráček, a naturally-insightful artist and winner of the 2016 Queen Elisabeth Competition arrives to probe late Beethoven and Schubert and contribute Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie. With the burgeoning interest in playing Chopin on authentic pianos and the recent availability of a lovingly-restored Broadwood (1870) in the city, a further February treat is the two-concert appearance of German period specialist Tobias Koch. This venture is co-sponsored with Early Music Vancouver and features a first concert where Koch directly recreates Chopin’s recital in Edinburgh on October 4, 1848, while the second surveys a wider range of Polish Romantic composers.

The Chopin Society often finishes its season with a flourish and one could not do much better than the estimable Nelson Goerner and the mesmerizing Kate Liu. Goerner gave a very fine Beethoven ‘Hammerklavier’ last time, and this concert ranges enticingly from Beethoven and Brahms to the Chopin Op. 25 Etudes: it should be absolutely splendid pianism!  Liu won the bronze at the 2015 Chopin Competition, but many adjudicators would have placed her higher for her unique sensitivity and absorption of Chopin’s idiom. Her appearance is an important event: with the appearance of Gold Medalist Seong-Jin Cho last year, the society will have now brought all three of the top 2015 Chopin Competition medalists to Vancouver.



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 much more exposure in the last few 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 widely too. Another factor is a much stronger free-flow of distinguished musicians throughout the Pacific Northwest. 

The fall season goes from one delight to another. The opening concert in late September features esteemed violin virtuoso Enrico Onofri and the Pacific Baroque Orchestra performing Vivaldi concerti. Two weeks later, it is the unique vocal shades of Belgium’s Vox Luminis in a programme of Schutz and Thomas Morley, building to Henry Purcell’s poignant Funeral Sentences and Elegy on the Death of Queen Mary. Then for a change of pace, we start November out with ‘authentic’ Romantic lieder: Schubert’s ‘Die Winterreise’ with Juno-nominated baritone Phillipe Sly, with Michael McMahon on fortepiano. December starts with a visit by Bach Collegium Japan under Masaaki Suzuki, performing Bach and Vivaldi, with soprano Joanne Lunn distinguishing Handel’s Silete Venti. David Fallis leads a Monteverdi Christmas Vespers on December 23.

Two exciting events kick off 2019: first, the appearance of Canada’s Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra in J.S. Bach: The Circle of Creation – their latest multi-media creation by Alison Mackay – and then the venerable King’s Singers, celebrating their 50th anniversary and traversing music from King Henry VIII and Byrd to Britten and Richard Rodney Bennett.

EMV collaborates in three February/ March events mentioned earlier: two with fortepianist Tobias Koch (Vancouver Chopin Society) and the other with the Chiaroscuro Quartet (Vancouver Recital Society). One should also note a special ‘by donation’ concert of Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri and other 17th century German works with the Keio University Ensemble from Tokyo, members of the EMV and UBC Baroque Mentorship Orchestra, and Cappella Borealis.

Three bigger events round out the season. March sees Boston-based Blue Heron give a comprehensive, multi-media rendering of Guillaume de Machaut’s narrative poem Remede de Fortune, while April greets Handel’s splendid Coronation Anthems performed by the Pacific Baroque Orchestra and Vancouver Cantata Singers, all under the direction of Alexander Weimann. In a no less distinguished final May concert, Alexander Lingas directs Cappella Romana in music of Renaissance Crete.



After Vancouver Opera’s ‘experimental’ season of two years ago, putting three productions together in ‘festival’ format in the late spring, things appear to be heading back to normal now. The festival features two contemporaneous productions in April/ May (one in Queen Elizabeth Theatre; the other in the Playhouse), with major productions in QET in October and February. We have previously enjoyed the more daring ventures into Canadian contemporary opera, but not for this season.

Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow leads things off in October with a lavish Art Nouveau production directed by Kelly Robinson. The ‘widow’ is sung by Italian-Canadian Lucia Cesaroni, while John Cudia assumes the role of Count Danilo. Up-and-coming Wade Stare will conduct. Canadian designer and director duo André Barbe and Renaud Doucet – the team behind the VO’s Turandot in 2017 – this time create a gloriously extravagant production of Puccini’s La Boheme for February. Judith Yang conducts, and the singers include Phillip Addis (Marcello), Yosep Kang (Rodolfo), Neil Craighead (Colline), with France Bellemare as Mimi.

Moving to the April/May festival, Gounod’s Faust is the big production and the much-loved Jonathan Darlington returns to conduct. The all-Canadian cast features the very fine David Pomeroy and Marianne Fiset in the leads, with up-and-coming Robert Pomakov as Méphistophélès. Contemporaneously, Leslie Dala leads the smaller-scale version of Rossini’s La Cenerentola that runs for ten performances in the Playhouse, with an inspired youthful cast directed by Rachel Peake and with beautifully-toned Vancouver mezzo-soprano Simone McIntosh as Cinderella.

Under the guidance and inspiration of Nancy Hermiston, UBC Opera has also been a consistent artistic force in the city and always manages to put together productions that beguile. Puts’ Silent Night (November) and both Mozart’s The Magic Flute (February) and Don Giovanni (June) are on tap for this season. City Opera also starts of the season with flourish with its Nigredo Hotel (September).



New Music seems to be everywhere in the city these days. Many organizations participate: Music on Main, Vancouver New Music, the VSO, the Vancouver Chamber Choir, alongside a host of individual soloists and duos who get together in varying degrees of formality. While Vancouver New Music has pushed the mantle of new music forward in the city for over 40 years – consistently bringing the highest quality of international ‘experimental’ artists – one also has to be greatly impressed with the recent efforts of David Pay and Music on Main. Besides their regular season, each organization offers a festival in the fall: the former presents a 3-day October ‘Quartetti’ gathering of many of the world’s finest string quartets playing contemporary microtonal pieces, while Music on Main’s 4-day ‘Modulus’ Festival in November pushes to an even greater range of styles. One cannot say enough about Sean Bickerton’s efforts in revitalizing the Canadian Music Centre – BC.  Six concerts celebrating key composers in the Canadian and BC compositional legacy are again planned for the intimate Adaskin Salon. As well, one must mention the Turning Point Ensemble – a truly enduring force in performing new chamber compositions in the city – with a small season of their own.

For all the positive momentum here, one immediate downside for the city is the departure of Bramwell Tovey, who has championed ‘new music’ with the VSO throughout his tenure and increasingly in the last 5 years. A consequence is the reduction of the 2019 VSO New Music Festival to only two concerts. That said, one must acknowledge the presence of Jocelyn Morlock, the VSO’s Composer-In-Residence and 2018 Juno-award winner, who has continued to serve as a coordinating force for local composers and ensembles, while providing her own stream of magnetic compositions for different groups to try out. There is no reason to believe this is other than a temporary setback: the VSO’s new Music Director Otto Tausk is also an ardent champion of contemporary music.



It is not possible to forget the 47 years of inspiring concerts at Ryerson (now Pacific Spirit) United Church given by the Vancouver Chamber Choir under conductor Jon Washburn. Although the legendary Washburn will step down at the end of the 2018-19 season, there is still another wonderful 10-concert series awaiting us, both involving international guest conductors and showcasing repertoire for the ensemble’s cross-Canada tour.

Two other staples of the city’s rich choral heritage are the Vancouver Bach Choir and the Vancouver Cantata Singers, each of which have their own seasons, including Christmas concerts and collaborations in bigger choral events with orchestra. A similar presence attaches to the Elektra Woman’s Choir under Lorna Edmundson, who will be collaborating with the renowned Ben Heppner and Suzie LeBlanc this season. The enthusiastic and accomplished Chor Leoni Men’s Choir also gives a full slate of concerts that might be termed semi-classical, but they are always inspired and the choir has the widest following. And there are many smaller local choirs behind these. One also does not want to forget the contribution of the UBC University Singers and Choral Union – under Graeme Langager – to the big choral events in the city, and particularly those of the VSO.



For those who enjoy music ‘early’, there is the enterprising Music in the Morning series (10am), featuring a variety of outstanding Canadian and international chamber and vocal groups and soloists. Under the direction of Adrian Fung, this year’s 7-concert series ranges widely, from the opening St. Lawrence Quartet to the a cappella vocal quintet Calmus Ensemble, then from the ‘authentic’ London Haydn Quartet to a closing appearance by esteemed Canadian cellist Johannes Moser. Concerts are Wednesday and Thursday mornings at Koerner Hall, Vancouver Academy of Music and, now, Friday mornings at Christ Church Cathedral.

There is always exciting chamber music available from Vetta Chamber Music, pushing past three decades of performance and guided with strength by Joan Blackman. Vancouver Chamber Music Society is a new organization that has put together a fine set of duo concerts in North Vancouver, both in the afternoon and evening. West Van’s Kay Meek Centre has an interesting series of classical concerts within their eclectic offerings, and one should not overlook the fine international soloists sponsored by the Vancouver Classical Guitar Society. Jennifer West’s Müzewest Concerts is starting to make its mark after four years of duo and solo recitals, and there are other fledging organizations ready to spring on to the same path. West Coast Chamber Music also offers four concerts in the spring.

The West Coast Symphony, the Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra, and the UBC Symphony all offer adventurous seasons of their own. There are of course a vast number of other events which take place under the auspices of the UBC School of Music.


© Geoffrey Newman 2018