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.  As in the fall, we will continue to see a march of young conductors vying for the position of Music Director at the end of Maestro Bramwell Tovey’s tenure.  Many of these artists have placed highly in recent conducting competitions, and a number are returnees. All will present a conventional concert: an overture or short modern work, a concerto, and a symphonic work.   

The special event just after New Year is the appearance of esteemed pianist Emanuel Ax alongside Maestro Tovey, playing both Mozart’s 22nd Concerto and Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’. It is also a tradition of the VSO to have two festivals in the spring: 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 extended 6-concert New Music Festival (Jan 24-29) introduces new works by VSO-affiliates Jocelyn Morlock and Marcus Goddard, traverses Jeffrey Ryan’s big-scale Requiem and explores contemporary compositions for piano and for chamber ensemble. Perhaps its most innovative dimension is the two-concert collaboration with Early Music Vancouver where we hear new music written for ‘authentic’ instruments.  The Spring Festival (Apr 22 - May 1) 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 young conductors start right away in January with Otto Tausk, who 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 always-commanding First Concerto.  In the following month, 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. The collaboration of young Israeli conductor Lahav Shani and renowned 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, younger 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 the little-heard Shostakovich Twelfth Symphony.  The beguiling Norwegian violinist, 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.  As we have seen already this season – Joyce DiDonato’s presence still etched in our memory – this mix yields concert experiences of extraordinary variety and innovation.  The first enterprising event after the New Year is a two-day ‘Winterlude’ that takes place in late January – 3 concerts in 2 days.  It features 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 magnetic mandolin of Avi Avital. Avital’s return in February is with the Banff Competition-winning Dover Quartet, an ensemble that has strongly impressed in its two previous visits 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).  So does 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, The Friends of Chamber Music.  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 (CMS), the long-celebrated Emerson Quartet, and the Han-Finckel-Setzer Trio.  The CMS lead off January with the Faure and Brahms Piano Quartets, returning again 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 two of the greatest Piano Trios of Beethoven and Schubert. The 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 Vancouver Chopin Society expends great efforts to bring us pianists that are both distinguished and aristocratic, most of whom are also Chopin specialists. We are fresh off a splendid recital by 2015 Chopin Competition Silver Medalist, Canadian Charles Richard-Hamelin at the end of November. Perhaps equal excitement comes at the beginning 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.



Early Music Vancouver is one of the founding early music organizations of North America, 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.  It enjoys an intimate connection with the Pacific Baroque Orchestra (PBO) under Alexander Weimann, co-sponsoring a variety of events.

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’ – in collaboration with the VSO’s New Music Festival. In early February, violinist Monica Huggett again joins the PBO in a concert of early classical symphonies.  Then, March offers two vocal ensembles that many have long 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, the rest of the year has not been empty: a youthful production of Hansel and Gretel got a scintillating run at the Playhouse in the late fall, and will be followed up in mid-January by a unique production of Verdi’s Macbeth, a co-production with ‘PuSh’ International Performing Arts Festival and IL CENTRO Italian Cultural Centre.

In the Spring Festival format, there will sometimes be different productions on the same day in both the Queen Elizabeth Theatre and the Playhouse.  The three 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.  The city needs more ‘festival’ feeling at this time of the year – and the VO’s efforts certainly moves in the right direction.



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.  And there is another full season for 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 MusicMüzewest Concerts also finds particularly striking soloists in the solo piano and chamber music repertoire. 

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, with Music on Main joining the parade. Add in the adventurous modern explorations by the Turning Point Ensemble, and something tells me that ‘new music’ is on an upturn in the city. 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 2016