Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Dreaming Out Loud

Peter Ladner, a former city councillor and mayoral candidate in Vancouver, recently said that our city “desperately needs a visible centre for the high-tech industry.”

Well, Mr. Ladner, there has been something I’d want to get off my chest for a long time now. What this city truly and desperately needs are some world class performing arts centres. Let us look at what we have right now.

The Queen Elizabeth Theatre, opened with great fanfare in 1959, represents the absolute worst of architecture from the 1950’s and 1960’s. This hall is now, unfortunately, the home of the Vancouver Opera. Whenever I am inside the theatre, I am taken back to the time when Vancouver was a quiet and very provincial backwater. What is more, the acoustics of the hall is deplorable, and both the stage and the orchestra pit are far too small. Unless you are seated at the first ten rows from the stage, there is no immediacy in the sound. If you happen to be unlucky to be seated in the upper balconies, you can perhaps see figures moving on stage, but the music being played on stage would, unless amplified, sound like listening to a stereo system from far, far away. The theatre is one of those so-called “multi-purpose” halls that ends up being good for not much else, and is a disgrace to our city. Perhaps it is good enough for Andrew Lloyd Webber, with all the voices singing into hidden microphones, but it is certainly not good enough for Mozart.

The Orpheum Theatre, home of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, dates from 1927 and was restored in the 1970’s. It is, and deserves to be, a heritage building, because of its old world splendour. But it is not a concert hall. No matter how many acoustical panels they install, there are far too many dead spots for sound. Again, unless you are one of the lucky ones sitting close to the stage, you might as well stay home and listen to your own sound system.

We are certainly fortunate in our city to have the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, situated in the campus of the University of British Columbia. The hall, not much to look at from the outside, does have comfortable seating, and the acoustics is beautiful. But the hall is limited because of its small stage and lack of an orchestra pit.

Apparently Vancouver did have a “real” opera house once upon a time. In 1890, the Canadian Pacific Railway built The Vancouver Opera House, on
733 Granville Street
, for the sum of $100,000. At the time, it was considered outrageous to spend such an amount of money for a “small town”, but it was an indication of the CPR’s optimism in the city’s future. The opera house seated 2,000 - when the population was a little over 10,000 - and it opened in 1891 with a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin.

I have a dream. That one day we will have a world class performing arts complex that can house both our orchestra and opera company. I have a vision that the complex will be situated in the Vanier Park area, looking out towards Burrard Inlet. Like Sydney Harbour, we will then have a beautiful performing arts centre in the midst of spectacular natural beauty. Do we have someone with the optimism in our city’s future to initiate such a project?

When that day comes, Vancouver will truly be the international city it purports, or wishes to be.

Hey, a guy can dream, can’t he?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Substitute

Sometimes the most exciting performances take place when an artist steps in for a colleague who had cancelled. We can only think of Leonard Bernstein’s legendary debut with the New York Philharmonic, substituting for an ailing Bruno Walter. Zubin Mehta stepped in when Igor Markevitch cancelled his appearance with the Montreal Symphony, created a sensation with both the audience and the orchestra, and became Music Director of that orchestra within the same week. The young Andre Watts substituted for Glenn Gould who was infamous for cancelling performances. That performance led to the beginning of a stellar career for Mr. Watts that has continued to this day. In Vancouver, a cancellation by pianist Walter Klien led to the debut of Yefim Broffman in a stunning performance of Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor.

Last Sunday, pianist Lukas Geniusas cancelled his appearance with the Vancouver Chopin Society because of illness. The society was fortunate to be able to secure the services of American pianist Sara Daneshpour, who then made her Vancouver debut. Ms. Daneshpour came with impressive credentials. A graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, where she studied with Leon Fleisher, Ms. Daneshpour has a string of prizes to her name, and was a competitor in the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia. A glance at the young pianist’s website also reveals an already active performing career.

Ms. Daneshpour played a varied programme of works by Schumann, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Scarlatti, Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. Incidentally, many of the pieces she played were the same as the ones she played when she competed at the Tchaikovsky Competition.

The young artist is a natural pianist, with a very easy way around the keyboard. For most of her recital, I did find a little lack of projection in her sound. Her playing of Schumann’s difficult Abegg Variations, Op. 1, was stunning, but I did miss in her playing the sense of ardour. Chopin’s Scherzo No. 4 and Four of Rachmaninoff’s Étude-tableaux were very well played, as was Tchaikovsky’s charming Romance, Op. 5 - a beautiful and charming piece that one hardly ever hears in recitals. However, I somehow find that she was emotionally ambivalent in these, for lack of a better word, “romantic” pieces, works that call for heart rather than fingers, and the playing came across as a little cold.

She played the two Scarlatti sonatas with impressive dexterity, and brought out the delicacy that the music calls for. I did wish for a little more variety of sound colours though, especially in the repeats of each section.

Ms. Daneshpour became a completely different musician in her last piece, Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7 in B-flat Major, Op. 83. Her performance of this 20th masterpiece was captivating, bracing, technically impregnable, and the passion and the projection I was looking for all evening were suddenly there, in spades. The audience gave her a well-deserved ovation after her performance of the sonata, whereupon she rewarded us with the same composer’s famous Toccata, Op. 11. All the attributes she exhibited in the sonata were there in her performance of this now popular work. From a programming standpoint, I would probably not have chosen an encore a work that is so similar in character to that of the work just played.

The Vancouver Chopin Society was fortunate to have been able to secure the services of a pianist of Ms. Daneshpour’s calibre. I do have a suggestion to the members of the society’s board. The next time there is a cancellation, they need to look no further than our own city, where Vancouver pianist Ryo Yanagitani would be able to deliver a performance of the highest artistic and pianistic standards.