Vancouver offers a remarkable array of high-level classical music from January 2015, featuring a stream of international artists that almost completely fill up a calendar in core months.  Vancouver has a total of almost 20 musical institutions, and these provide both distinction and balance over all musical genres, whether it be symphony, chamber music, solo recital, early music, new music or opera.  As with many music centers these days, Vancouver is exceptionally youth oriented, offering tickets for students and, in many cases, those under 35 for around $15.



These days, a symphony orchestra must do everything for everybody within a community, so we find the characteristic range of concerts from ‘pop’ to the most serious ‘new music’.  The VSO -- under Maestro Bramwell Tovey -- maintains its focus on ‘festivals’ as a way of generating a sense of occasion in the concert hall.  The New Music Festival takes place again in mid-January.  The Pacific Rim Celebration occurs at the end of February, and the extended Mozart-Plus Springfest is in mid-April.  The two ‘celebrity’ concerts feature Lang Lang playing Mozart (March 18) and Yo-Yo Ma playing Dvorak (May 1).  The very popular VSO Chamber Players continue their concerts and the enterprising 3-concert Symphony at the Annex series introduces more modern experimental music in the spring.  

The New Music Festival (January 15-18) is the key January event, featuring 23 modern works and splitting its four nights between chamber music, choral and orchestral contributions.  The Standing Wave Ensemble and the Phoenix Chamber Choir will play a key role alongside the VSO under Maestro Tovey. Kelly Marie Murphy is a featured Canadian composer, alongside two well-known composers with a VSO association, Jocelyn Morlock and Marcus Goddard.  Other works by distinguished modern composers, John Luther Adams, Steve Reich, Avro Part, Harrison Birtwistle and Toro Takamitsu will also be heard.

The main concert series start towards the end of January. Kirill Gerstein should be just the right man for Shostakovich’s enigmatic Second Piano Concerto, and we get to see him alongside very young British conductor Ben Gurnon, recently appointed as a Dudamel fellow and appearing at this year’s Proms (January 24/26).  Maestro Tovey turns his attention from Mahler to Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony (Jan 31/ Feb 1/2); young Calgary native, Katherine Chi, also contributes Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto.  We are excited by the concert of Feb 14/16 for two reasons: first, we have our own Dale Baltrop performing Bartok’s First Violin Concerto; second, we are able to see young and engaging Danish conductor Thomas Sondergard in Haydn and Beethoven.  Sondergard already holds two titled positions with British orchestras.  February 20/21 brings the principal choral concert for the spring, highlighted by Mendelssohn’s always-inspiring Second Symphony (“Lobgesang”).  The Pacific Rim Celebration at the very end of the month focusses on the music of China and Japan respectively and, in the former, enlists young conductor, Perry So, who stood in at short notice so successfully for us last season.  Assistant Conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, James Feddeck, joins the young and impressive violinist Timothy Chooi, a Victoria native, playing the Bruch concerto, on March 7-9.  After the Lang Lang concert on March 16th, there is only one major concert before the Spring Festival; the prodigious Yevgeny Sudbin plays the great warhorse, Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, with young American conductor Ryan McAdams, who contributes Stravinsky and Ravel on his own.  

The Mozart-Plus Springfest (April 10/11/13/16/18) is unusual in it is designed in the spirit of a documentary of Mozart’s life, with an initial screening of “Amadeus.”  Understanding the musical links in Mozart’s life will be a rewarding and unusual journey, though, for some, these concerts are perhaps light on substantial works and notable soloists. Certainly, Maestro Tovey and the orchestra do give us Mozart’s last three symphonies and the Requiem, and Rimsky’s operatic take on Mozart and Salieri should have appeal.

The late spring concerts start with Jeffrey Kahane as both pianist and conductor in Beethoven, Haydn and Shostakovich (April 24-27).  Right after the Yo-Yo Ma ‘special’ (Dvorak Cello Concerto) on May 1, scintillating young violinist Ray Chen takes over to play Sibelius (May 2/4).  Celebrated Canadian Angela Hewitt then arrives on May 9-11 to play both Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain and Ravel’s Left-hand Concerto.  Another esteemed Canadian pianist, Janina Fialkowski, follows May 23/24 to do the (other) Ravel G major concerto.  After an appearance of popular virtuoso violinist Karen Gomyo, performing the Mendelssohn concerto with returning guest conductor, Jun Markl (May 29- June 1), Bramwell Tovey finishes out the season in style: a concert performance of Bernstein’s Candide ((June 6/8) and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (June 13/15) 



For the past 35 years, artistic director Leila Getz has consistently been able to find the most promising young artists to bring to us in her ‘Next Generation’ series and to programme these with a variety of the world’s most distinguished mature artists.  This gives us concert seasons of great variety and innovation, and it is wonderful over the years to see artists who originally were sponsored by VRS continue to return here in their celebrated prime.  

This spring season features the return of four of today’s most enterprising and distinguished pianists: Emanuel Ax, playing Debussy and Chopin (January 18), Steven Osborne, playing Beethoven (February 22), Sir Andras Schiff, playing the ‘last’ sonatas of four composers (March 1), and Paul Lewis, giving us his new thoughts on Beethoven; he performed the complete cycle of 32 sonatas for VRS a number of years ago (May 3).  Equally inspiring, renowned cellist Steven Isserlis will join forte-pianist Robert Levin in the Beethoven’s Complete Cello Sonatas and Variations (March 13 – 15).

There are yet further delights.  Widely heralded young British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor comes back again on March 6th, being followed closely on March 8th by outstanding fortepianist, Kristian Bezuidenhout, performing an all-Mozart recital.  Both this and the Isserlis/ Levin concerts above are co-sponsored with Early Music Vancouver.  Celebrated tenor Ian Bostridge will perform Schubert’s all-consuming Die Winterreise on April 15th, Gerald Finley’s memorable traversal last year probably still etched in our memory.  The ‘Next Generation’ pianists, both offering wide-ranging programmes, are Francesco Piemontesi (March 22) and Joseph Moog (April 12).  A concert of relaxation and fun (including comic sketches) is February 19th: Igudsman and Joo present: “A Little Nightmare Music.”



The presence of Lincoln Center music, with former-Emerson cellist David Finkel and his wife, pianist Wu Han, is everywhere this spring season, giving us almost another festival over three concerts.  The first (January 20) features Brahms and Dvorak String Quintets, the Finkel-Han-Setzer Trio then give us Beethoven and Brahms Piano Trios (February 15) while enterprising violinist, Daniel Hope, and violist Paul Neubauer join Finkel and Han for a concert featuring only Piano Quartets (April 14).  To start the New Year, we welcome the exuberant young Pacifica Quartet, with venerable pianist, Menahem Pressler, now over 90.  A long-standing returnee, the Prazak Quartet, will illuminate Czech classics (March 10) and one should get quite excited by our Canadian octet, Octagon, performing the Beethoven Septet and Schubert Octet (March 24).  With the likes of Martin Beaver, Rivka Golani and James Campbell present, this should be a vibrant musical experience.



The Chopin Society complements the above organizations very well by expending great efforts to bring us recent Chopin Piano Competition winners as well as other very distinguished pianists who play Chopin alongside other specialties.  The remarkable young Frenchman, Alexandre Tharaud (January 30) starts off the spring in fine style, followed by distinguished Argentinian Nelson Goerner (March 13).  The season closes with the very young winner of the 2012 Dublin International Piano Competition, Nikolay Khozyainov (May 8).



Early Music Vancouver is one of the founding early music organizations in North America, consistently bringing the highest level of ‘authentic instrument’ performance to the city.  Closely associated with the Pacific Baroque Orchestra, their 2012 recording of Handel’s Orlando has received the highest level of critical praise internationally as well as winning a Juno award. This spring, we have another major event: Handel’s Theodora (Feb 14).

Under the leadership of Matthew White, this season also sees a stronger integration with other premiere early music organizations in the northwest.  After their magnificent performance last year, Monica Huggett and the Portland Baroque will return May 1 for a concert that includes Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.  Besides the distinguished co-sponsored concerts involving fortepiano discussed earlier, Kristian Bezuidenhout playing Mozart (March 8) and Isserlis and Levin playing Beethoven (March 13-15), we could hardly do better than the two counter-tenors also appearing in the spring: Charles Daniels in the English Orpheus (February 25) and Jeffery Thompson (accompanied by La Reveuse) in Henry Lawes (March 27).



Gone are the days that the Vancouver Opera stuck slavishly to mainline works in their season.  In recent years, we have seen the likes of John Adams’ Nixon in China, the Canadian premiere of commissioned opera Lillian Alling by John Estacio, and Tan Dun’s Tea: A Mirror of Soul.  Last year was relatively less controversial, only one slight move off the norm with Britten’s Albert Herring.  This spring, we turn to an operetta and a musical.  Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus is the familiar item, running from February 28th for four performances until March 8th, and featuring soprano Joyce el-Khoury as Rosalinde, tenor Roger Honeywell as Gabriel von Eisenstein, and Christopher Gaze as the tipsy jailer, Frosch. Mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne and baritone Hugh Russell also return to the VO stage; Jonathan Darlington conducts.   Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Sweeney Todd (1979), completes the season, and runs for six performances from April 25th to May 3rd.  Often referred to as a ‘musical thriller’, it has been revived in very recent years in London and elsewhere and in fact is being performed in a number of U.S. cities this season.  The cast stars real-life husband and wife Greer Grimsley, one of the supreme bass-baritones of his generation, and acclaimed mezzo-soprano Luretta Bybee.   Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman, fresh from a bravura debut performance at The Met, will sing Johanna.  Jonathan Darlington again conducts.



One can never forget the decades and decades of inspiring concerts given by the Vancouver Chamber Choir under conductor Jon Washburn.  There are five of these after the New Year at Ryerson United Church. There are also the concerts of the award-winning Vancouver Cantata Singers.  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 chamber groups and soloists, the Gryphon Trio, Isabel Bayrakdarian, and Dawn Upshaw with Gilbert Kalish are among them.  There is even more chamber music available from Vetta Chamber Music and West Coast Chamber Music.  All the performers here are first class, some having strong associations with the VSO; others being faculty members in the School of Music, UBC.  Opera flourishes as well with City Opera Vancouver and a number of other small opera ensembles.  There are also the enterprising presentations by Vancouver New Music, Turning Point Ensemble and Music on Main.  The West Coast Symphony, the Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra, Müzewest Concerts, and the UBC Symphony all offer adventurous seasons of their own.  And of course we must highlight the host of interesting musical events, in addition to the UBC Symphony, on the UBC School of Music calendar. 


© Geoffrey Newman 2015