Monday, July 11, 2011

Random Acts of Culture, #1

Tovey and the VSO (source: The Georgia Straight)
It’s often said, at least in North America, that the higher arts are inaccessible to the public due to high ticket prices and the esoteric nature of the material. While the Blogger easily sees the former being a barrier to access, he believes the latter is indefensible. Although many clearly don’t have any affinity for culture, and that’s all well and good, decrying it as being obscure and pouring money into the latest big-budget seizure-inducing Hollywood enterprise or pop star’s juggernaut concert tour while claiming to enjoy “the arts” reeks of sheer laziness.

The Blogger was thrilled yesterday to take part in the City of Vancouver’s 125th anniversary celebrations this past weekend. There were numerous outdoor events such as concerts and public performances meant to collect our citizens together in celebration of our glittering city of glass, still smarting from the ugly Stanley Cup riots of last month. Over the weekend, thousands of people gathered to peacefully partake in public events with minimal or no damage to civic or private property. Citizens were orderly, picked up after themselves at picnics, were generally polite on their cell phones, and there was little to no shoving, pushing, or unruly cattle herd-like behaviour. Who says we’re an unruly mob?

New York City free public concert in Central Park:
most of this, please. Lots more.
In particular, I was thrilled to see tens of thousands of people gathered in Stanley Park’s Brockton Oval to take in a free classical concert performed by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Just when I thought higher culture had all but committed seppuku. Led by Grammy Award-winning conductor and composer Bramwell Tovey, the VSO performed to a rousing but orderly crowd under immaculate blue skies and a blazing yet beautiful sun. This is not unlike the free public concerts that are popular all over Europe, particularly in Vienna, and in the summertime in New York City. Why can’t we have more of these, please? In Vienna, they have free public concerts every weekend in the late spring and summer months. They support their arts enthusiastically. Even if you can’t afford a ticket to see certain plays, the opera house, culture exhibition halls and public parks are equipped with giant video screens in piazzas so that like-minded citizens and tourists can have picnics while watching the performances outdoors, live. And they don’t destroy it afterward, unlike the spoiled brats who defaced the downtown core during the hockey riots. That is how you make culture accessible.

Yesterday’s playlist was filled with instantly recognizable classics:

·     Rossini - William Tell: Overture
·     Strauss - Blue Danube Waltz
·     Baker - Through the Lion's Gate: Mountains
·     Wagner - Ride of the Valkyries
·     Haydn - Cello Concerto No. 1 in C Major: I. Moderato
·     Borodin - Prince Igor: Polovtsian Dances
·     Mascagni - Cavalleria Rusticana: Intermezzo
·     Tchaikovsky - 1812 Overture

The VSO also snuck in a piece by Canadian composer Michael Conway Baker, whose ode to our very own Lion’s Gate Bridge was far more ethereal and sublime than traffic on that bridge ever was or will be. The crowds peacefully took in the immaculate sounds and were transported to a world away, where people could literally waltz to the Blue Danube along the water. In fact, given that there was a large public space to do so, several couples got up and actually waltzed through Strauss’s The Blue Danube, and we were mere feet away from the ocean. Bliss. Given my obsession with German opera, I was thrilled to hear Wagner live.

Tovey led his orchestra with copious amounts of humour, to lighten the occasion and not to make us feel like we were at a solemn recital. He rode in on a white horse and cheekily reminded us with the Mascagni piece that it would be familiar to us from car commercials. Tovey also did a sample of the canon shot from the Tchaikovsky before playing it, just to make sure he didn’t startle anyone. (That led to comical scenes of classical fans counting off the 16 canon shots and wanting more during the performance.) He also described the courtship rituals of the waltz but also saying “we need to update this” so that a gentleman could call on another gentlemen, and a lady with another lady, if he or she so chooses”. It all ended with a quick but rousing rendition of Strauss’s Radetzky March, to which the crowd of several thousand clapped along enthusiastically from beginning to end. (People even comically “marched” out of the park in time to the piece as it was playing.) Who says the classics aren’t fun? If this sounds like your idea of a great time, the VSO has a free concert coming up too. Judging from some of the reviews, the reception was met with general public acclaim.

In another nod to making the classics more accessible, why not take a cue from the Opera Company of Philadelphia? In the spring of 2010, to promote their production of La Traviata (which the Vancouver Opera Society also performed this past spring), they performed a much-viewed (on YouTube) and admired flash mob performance of the Brindisi piece at Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, which you can see here:

Look at the faces of the unsuspecting crowd members when the company burst into song. While they might have been inititally amused by the audacity and randomness of such a public performance, it was clear by the end of the aria that everyone was enthralled. Who wouldn’t want to partake in such joy? Arts and culture are always one of the first public programs to cut in tough economic times by government, and it’s a double whammy when private companies also scale back their support.

May I suggest that going to events staged by the performing companies and supporting them at these events, or even going to one-off performances, might actually help them? Wouldn’t you want to feed yourself a little culture? Culture is meant to uplift and better human achievement. Who wouldn’t want that? (Go just once, and you can resume your marathon of Jersey Shore reruns if you must, but please go just once, I beg of you.) We’re not Vienna, but the important thing is that as a world-class city, we aspire to simply be. And if you can't afford it, then do yourself a favour and enrich yourself by simply picking up a classical CD, such as the just-released debut disc by British piano virtuoso Benjamin Grosvenor (an exclusive interview with The Piano Files, a blog which you simply must follow, can be read here).

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra will play their annual free concert on Sunday, July 17 at Deer Lake Park in neighbouring Burnaby. More information can be found here. It’s times like this when one is reminded that the best things in life truly are free.