THE VANCOUVER RECITAL SOCIETY:
AN INTERVIEW WITH LEILA GETZ
The Vancouver Recital Society was born in the recession of 1980, an innocent dream of long standing artistic director Leila Getz. From the original concerts at the Arts Club Theater, moving to the Chan Centre when it opened in 1997, the organization has brought to us a stunning flow of young classical musical talent over the years, much of which has matured into to the best now before us. Although always operating with relatively meager public funding, the quality of talent and the innovation of VRS programming has never diminished. Thirty years later, and having received the Order of British Columbia in 2004, the enterprise of Leila Getz remains a triumph of will and vision over adversity. Leila sat down with us to reflect on the pursuit of young artists and their special character.
1. HOW EXACTLY DO YOU FIND THAT 'SPECIAL' YOUNG TALENT YOU CONSISTENTLY BRING TO US IN YOUR 'NEXT GENERATION CONERT SERIES?
In one sense, this is pretty straightforward: agents either bring young artists to you, or you have to go out and find them yourself. International periodicals like the Gramophone, as well as international press reviews, are often invaluable guides to which young artists are just drawing attention, perhaps making their debut at celebrated venues such as Wigmore Hall, London, and this always opens your eyes to new possibilities. Then again, a suggestion from an artist who you know and trust, possibly one that has previously performed for the VRS and is now very well connected, can bring to light talent that is less obviously visible.
2. SO YOU MAINTAIN CLOSE CONTACT WITH THE MANY ARTISTS YOU HAVE SPONSORED IN THE PAST, EVEN IF THEY HAVE NOW MOVED ON TO GREAT INTERNATIONAL SUCCESS?
Yes, our past artists are very loyal and supportive to us, and we cultivate long-lasting friendships. Two of the most notable date from the early days of VRS: pianist Andras Schiff and mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli. A more recent friendship is with pianist Paul Lewis, who performed the complete Beethoven sonatas a few years ago and returned again this year. He also picked our new Steinway grand for us.
3. ARE YOU WILLING TO INVITE A YOUNG ARTIST SIMPLY ON THE BASIS OF REPUTATION OR HIS RECORDINGS, SIGHT UNSEEN?
Well, it is literally impossible to see all these young artists performing live, although we do make a point of seeing some. The recordings are very important; interestingly, it only takes a minute or so of one CD to decide whether we are really interested.
4. HOW IMPORTANT IS A CONCERT WITH THE VRS IN ESTABLISHING A YOUNG ARTIST'S CAREER?
As we have built our reputation over time, it very important. Having performed for the VRS is something other musical organizations throughout the world will take notice of, and an artist can essentially build a whole tour around this one Vancouver invitation. This is quite unlike established artists, who will come to Vancouver only if they can fit it into a pre-established North American concert tour that year.
5. HOW ARE FEES ESTABLISHED FOR THESE YOUNG PERFORMERS?
There is no set fee schedule; an artist’s manager can in principle ask for any amount that he thinks the market will pay. But this fee is negotiable; we are certainly helped here by the fact that a VRS concert means a lot to an artist’s career. Some managers want to charge an extraordinary amount for the talent they are offering but we have sometimes been able to negotiate deep discounts. Remember though that artist’s fees are only one part of our costs. If we bring an artist to Vancouver, there are travel, accommodation, and entertainment costs as well. Putting on the concert involves major costs in staff and advertising in addition to the rental expense of the concert venue itself. Unfortunately, all these additional costs continue to increase over time.
6. ARE YOU ABLE TO CHOOSE THE PROGRAMME THAT AN INVITED YOUNG ARTIST WILL PERFORM?
In general, no. While more seasoned artists and ensembles like string quartets might give you programming alternatives, most young soloists have one set programme that they are currently prepared to play, and that is it. Sometimes, more than one musician wants to play the same work (e.g., the Franck Violin Sonata); only here do you try to be persuasive and get someone to switch. But I certainly would never allow any young artist to go on stage with a work they were not completely comfortable with!
7. YOUNG ARTISTS CAN SEEMINGLY BE AN MIX OF THE HEADSTRONG AND THE VULNERABLE. DO YOU FIND THAT THEY ARE DIFFICULT TO DEAL WITH BEFORE A PERFORMANCE?
No, most of them are a true pleasure to be around and are very outgoing and relaxed. They put in their required practice at our home but they are excited to get out and see Vancouver, the sights, restaurants they have heard of, etc. Actually, it is some of the older, more celebrated, artists that are more intense, practicing endlessly before performance, totally absorbed in their own creative world. When one of these (whom I will not name) was asked why he was so conscientious in practicing music he had performed for years, his response was: ‘This music is not easy, you know’. So there is a certain freedom in youth; the more you know, the more you have things to worry about. As the venerable pianist Mieczylaw Horszowski, who lived to 100, said: I could play Mozart easily before I was 20 and after I was 90; it was too difficult in between.’
8. WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE CURRENT TENDENCY TO 'GLAMOURIZE' YOUNG ARTISTS IN ADS, CD COVERS AND ON STAGE?
I think it is fine; it just the world we currently live in. Everything now has to be marketed in some way or another to get a prospective buyer’s attention. I sort of like the way that some of these rising stars get into their image, pay attention to fashion and stage presence, communicate with the audience, and so on. If it is natural to them, it should not be discouraged. I know that Measha Breuggergosman, our wonderful young Canadian mezzo-soprano (currently recording for Deutsche Grammophon), really gets into this side of performing.
9. WHAT ARE THE BIG CHANGES YOU HAVE NOTED OVER THE PAST TWO OR THREE DECADES IN THE STOCK OF YOUNG TALENT AND THE WAY AUDIENCES APPRECIATE CLASSICAL MUSIC IN GENERAL?
Everyone of course has talked about the declining interest in classical music over this period, but there is no slowdown in the production of new classical music talent. There is so much young artistry out there that in principle you could still run out of money before you ever run out of talent.
From an audience perspective, the big change is that it is much more difficult to sell concert subscriptions now. In the 70’s and 80’s, everyone bought these, trusting a musical organization to provide an illuminating package of concerts that added up to something greater than its individual parts. Besides, if one could not go to all the concerts, others would receive the tickets, keeping public exposure relatively high. This was the view of a musical organization as an entrusted ‘curator’ for a public’s musical experience. Well, things have changed! Now many concertgoers, and especially the ‘young’, do not want a curator at all; they want to pick their own entertainment for the moment or occasion, and do not want a long-term commitment to anything in particular. That explains why one can have a sell-out house for one performer on one night and scant attendance the next for a performer who is probably just as worthy.
There is no doubt all music organizations have to work on rebuilding the ‘core’ of their attendees for their long run success. But even in more tranquil times, the arts have always faced recurring adversity. The current difficulties are true difficulties indeed but new solutions will eventually arise, as they always do.
10. OVER THE LAST 30 YEARS YOU HAVE PUT ON SO MANY WONDERFUL CONCERTS FOR US. CAN YOU TELL US WHICH CONCERTS STILL RESONATE IN YOUR MEMORY AS THE MOST TREASURED FROM THE PAST?
There are truly many, but, from our very early days, it would probably be pianist Andras Schiff’s first appearance at the Arts Club in 1982. Three concerts from the early 1990’s that I will always cherish are mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli’s debut Mozart/ Rossini recital in March 1992 at the Orpheum, and the initial concerts at the Playhouse a year or two later by the two Russians, pianist Grigory Sokolov and violinist Maxim Vengerov.
© Geoffrey Newman 2011