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The fall and rise of Vancouver’s other orchestra

The Vancouver Sun

by David Gordon Duke

A new year, a new decade, a new business plan, and a new name. But for many observers of the Vancouver music scene, our new National Broadcast Orchestra will forever be connected with the late CBC Radio Orchestra.

The good news is that the NBO begins its life as a free-standing orchestra for a new era Friday, at the Chan Centre, with a benefit inaugural concert featuring classic and contemporary repertoire.

But its struggle for a place in our national music scene is a heroic one, and the circumstances  of its birth tumultuous.

Not since the bad, black days of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s troubles in 1988 has Vancouver seen such a musical commotion. The Radio Orchestra (née the CBC Vancouver Orchestra) was clumsily willed out of existence by the CBC brass. North America’s last surviving radio ensemble was, admittedly, something of an anachronism, but it was anything but a costly outfit to keep going, and its service to Canadian artists and Canadian composers earned it well-deserved respect.

According to flutist Brenda Fedoruk, the orchestra’s musician’s contractor, “There were never any contracts signed saying we were members of the CBC Radio Orchestra; it was viewed, by the musicians, as a gentleman’s agreement.”

The disbanding of the orchestra came as a shock to orchestral players. “The decision was kept absolutely quiet; we had no inkling this was coming on,” Fedoruk recalled. News came at a “special meeting” six months before the orchestra was to play their last concert. “When we were all summoned by telephone to that special meeting, it was an utter shock.”

Protests were loud and long, and won’t easily be forgotten. A significant groundswell of support failed to persuade the head office to change its plans. In November 2008 the orchestra once led by John Avison, John Eliot Gardiner and Mario Bernardi performed its last concert. Fedoruk said: “Playing the last few bars at the last concert felt like the end of an era: We all hugged and wept.”

Listeners such as Dr. William Bruneau, a University of B.C. professor emeritus with a particular interest in Canadian music, came together in various grassroots actions to protest not only the dissolution of the ensemble, but also what they saw as the dumbing down of CBC programming. According to Bruneau, “It was a double disaster when the CBC canned the Radio Orchestra and began The New Radio 2. So we thought that the people who did this to us should be held accountable. We have come to see that there is no way to hold anybody accountable for CBC programming.”

Heaven knows they tried. When CBC officials visited Vancouver last month, “We asked why the corporation chose to spend just under $4 million on advertising in the Globe and Mail, on Toronto bus and subway panels, and on roadside signage in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. The Radio Orchestra could have continued for eight years with that money! [CBC President Hubert] Lacroix said the $4 million shows that CBC was ‘where it was at’ in Canada, and attracted attention in a busy marketplace. Somebody said, ‘But we want to know your priorities!’ So … next question?”

Just before the end Alain Trudel was assigned the unenviable task of becoming the orchestra’s last conductor.

Unlike the captain of a ship, he had no intention of going down with his band. Indeed, Trudel refused to allow the ship to go down at all, patching together a coalition of supporters made up of musicians, listeners, patrons and the UBC.

According to Fedoruk, “Alain Trudel has tremendous support. He has the magical combination of musical insight with personnel smarts and political smarts. Right off the bat he told us, ‘I want you guys to take risks.’

“His approach is musically liberating, allowing us to be more creative than we might have dared on our own.

Thu Jan 7, 2010