Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes.

The Vancouver Recital Society

Rising stars.

“Expose Yourself!” That’s the saucy new headline Leila Getz is working on to promote the 33rd season of the Vancouver Recital Society (VRS). “And no previous experience is necessary,” the petite woman adds in a trilling South African accent, audibly laughing as she types feverishly into her laptop keyboard. From behind the thick, round, black glasses that hang low on her nose, her eyes dart coquettishly in my direction to let me in on the joke.

That scene captures the spirit of the VRS rather effectively, but why stop there? Already there is an impression that everything Getz does, she does with a splash—and at any moment she’ll dive into a pool of memories from yesteryear, when her idea to start a recital society dedicated to next-generation musicians was still being tossed around the kitchen table. “When I talked about starting a concert series with unknown artists, everybody except my husband told me I was crazy. Even David Y. H. Louie [the late arts impresario] said, ‘You’re absolutely nuts. Nobody is going to come. The day of the recital is over, and you want to present people that nobody’s ever heard of?’ ” The rationale was that there wasn’t a market for it—not in Vancouver, not anywhere. “The more people discouraged me,” Getz recalls, “the more determined I was to do it.”

Living in Cape Town, South Africa, prior to Apartheid, Getz grew up attending chamber music recitals by up-and-coming artists brought to town. When she arrived in Vancouver in 1966, no such thing existed. Of course, stars like soprano Leontyne Price and flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal made their appearances, but not in the small, intimate settings Getz was accustomed to. “I don’t know why people came to our very first concert [in 1980],” she reminisces, “but I can tell you one thing: by all accounts—and I mean that because I spent all my time in the washroom, I was so nervous—it was a huge success. The pianist was fabulous, and the review in the paper the next day was: ‘The Recital Lives in Vancouver’. ”

Word spread, and after the first year, the VRS was a modest success with a profit of $637. In the second year, that profit dropped to $320. By the third year, the VRS was poised to lose $14,000, “and that’s when I knew I had made it as an arts organization,” Getz says gleefully. “The mark of success? Lose money!”

Today, the VRS is deficit free, but still Getz maintains that “I hate doing anything that’s not risky. My whole philosophy is that if you don’t risk failure, you don’t risk success. I thrive on doing unusual things, and sometimes that scares me. But, I believe it’s an arts organization’s duty to lead their public, not to follow them.” That boldness is what has won the hearts of Vancouver audiences at home, and established the VRS’s reputation as an arbiter of talent within the music community internationally. The world waits and watches to see which artists the company will bring in, and even acclaimed Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins can thank Getz for his nomination and win of a prestigious Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award in 2006 (Getz is invited to put forward a candidate each year).

Supporting emerging artists for over three decades has also enabled the VRS to call in big names—those who have gone on to become great successes down the road. And it is the little things Getz does that make everyone involved—the audience, the artists, young or old—feel belonging to her privy, inner circle. Each year, Getz rewards her donors with a private appreciation performance by a secret guest, programs sealed. Surprise! Prodigy violinist Timothy Chooi. “If I could present my whole series without announcing who was playing, I would do it gladly,” Getz says of the event. “I would just say, ‘Here are a bunch of concerts, come and be surprised.’ ”

And in a way, that is exactly how the VRS operates. Who has ever heard of 25-year-old Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth? And who would want to sit through a nearly-two-hour-long solo trumpet recital, anyway? Sure enough, Helseth attracted a full house at the Vancouver Playhouse last season, and had the audience swooning at the gorgeous sound of her rambling Norwegian folk songs. “We have built a playhouse audience on trust,” Getz affirms, “and they think, ‘If the VRS is bringing in an oboist or a trumpeter in recital, then they must be phenomenal.’ I strive to present awesome concerts, always, but if they are not awesome, then I should hope they are absolutely, unspeakably terrible. I want people to go out roused. Adequate and boring are the worst crimes in the arts.”

Getz continues, and admits: “When you pay to go to a live performance, you’re actually gambling. But this is why we go to live music—you never know when that moment is going to ignite.” And when chances exist that the unknown act who’s about to grace the stage could be the next Cecilia Bartoli or Leif Ove Andsnes, the odds are in your favour. The VRS presented both early on in their careers, and Getz remembers the latter performance vividly: “[Andsnes] is a good looking guy, tall, and he had made only one recording at that point. He strode out onto the stage and, at the very same minute he sat at the piano, heplayed. And the whole audience went—” She gasps. “Absolutely you could feel it. And I can’t tell you what that is, but it’s much more than talent.”

Paul Gravett, executive director, provides a more sober perspective, perhaps his role within the organization. A former pianist and established artist and facility manager, Gravett has been with the VRS for just over a year. “For us, and for me in particular, the focus of our work is committed to that product,” he says. “In the most general terms—what’s on the stage. We hear any number of artists, we gauge the audience’s reaction, and we talk about ‘Have we changed that audience? Has someone come in and left almost like a different person. Emotionally, spiritually, are they in a new place?’ Because if they are, that’s the measure of a great performance.”

Last year, Gravett was determined to pinpoint exactly what that VRS recital experience is, to aid the company in its pursuit of yet a broader audience. “It’s fascinating to see and hear what people have to say about what they perceive from a performance,” he says. “And every so often, someone will say, ‘Gee, I really can’t find the words to express what I felt,’ and then will go on to write an entire paragraph. Those are the really wonderful moments. And that is, I think, one of the great legacies of the VRS.”

“It’s true,” Getz chimes in to enliven the mood yet again. “It’s like how do you describe the taste of a banana?” Yes, writing about music is like dancing about architecture, as the saying famously goes. And for now, the recital in Vancouver lives on.

Photo: ©Benjamin Ealovega under license to EMI Classics.


Post Date:

September 24, 2012