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Celebrating a decade of musical diversity

The Vancouver Sun

by David Gordon Duke

At the turn of this century, Vancouver saw the launch of a major summer music project. MusicFest Vancouver (initially known as Festival Vancouver) was the biggest summer music show in the city in decades, a classical/ jazz/world music buffet during the first weeks of August.

Now it’s festival time for the 10th year. From Friday until Aug. 14, you can choose from more than 40 concerts in nine different venues, boasting star performers, local groups, a new operetta, and a special nod to the thriving music culture of Australia.

In spirit, MusicFest hearkens back to two earlier enterprises. The fabled Vancouver International Festival taught locals that West Coast summers could be about something more than scenery and barbecues. Beginning in 1958, the VIF invited the world to a grandiose and splendid assortment of events – which proved too rich for local pockets. It went broke in 11 seasons. On a smaller scale, the CBC kept the festival tradition alive for a while with its own CBC Festivals in September. These events established the idea that local audiences could expect the unexpected: events, repertoire, and performers who wouldn’t likely come to town as part of our regular October-June music season.

Although both the grand and the unexpected live on in MusicFest, this is probably little more than coincidence. MusicFest has always had its own direction and its own sense of priorities.

For MusicFest’s program director, George Laverock, the big question in this 10th-anniversary season is how has the festival changed over the course of a decade. He acknowledges that it has naturally adapted and evolved, but nonetheless believes that the core concept, of music from three style areas presented in summery, more or less informal contexts, is just as valid now as it was in 2000.

“Really, our basic principles have remained the same.” Laverock and his program advisory committee meet regularly to consider the event and its direction. Their conclusion is that the festival’s diversity is one of its greatest strengths, and that events that appeal to diverse audiences are just right for Vancouver.

Over a decade’s worth of concerts, certain types of very big events have at least temporarily dropped off the roster. The festival’s last opera-in-concert was Bellini’s I Puritani in 2006, and the demise of the CBC Radio Orchestra has created a programming lacuna. Laverock is frank about this: “We can’t afford opera and big orchestral concerts, though we loved having both. We have learned a lot about what this community can afford to support.” Massive investments in a single concert don’t make sense; as well, he says, audiences have demonstrated “a certain reluctance” to visit the Orpheum in the summer.

Laverock takes considerable pride in the fact that the festival has presented some 480 artists, many of whom would not have had other opportunities to perform here. Does he have favourites? Laverock mentions the great choral conductor Helmut Rilling’s Schubert performances in 2003; a duo recital featuring soprano Donna Brown and pianist Phillipe Cassard in 2005; and performances by French counter-tenor Phillipe Jarousky in 2004 and 2006. But he cautions: “It’s often the smaller, intimate experiences that leave the best memories.” (For me, MusicFest was always about surprises and discoveries: hearing the Taiwan-based Xinxin Nanguan Ensemble in 2008 was a revelation, as was a stellar 2006 performance of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater by Italy’s Academia Montis Regalis.)

As for MusicFest 2010, Laverock’s very pleased to be featuring Australian musicians this time round. Realizing that in 10 years MusicFest had covered most of the obvious great national music cultures, he decided it was time to seek out new horizons.

The Australian connection stems from Laverock’s sabbatical; based in Melbourne in April and May last year, he was “very pleasantly surprised” by both the quality and variety of Australia’s music scene. He chose from among a wealth of groups and individuals, and is confident that Vancouver audiences will make their own splendid discoveries in the next few days.

Thu Aug 5, 2010