Vancouver Symphony Orchestra | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

It was not until 1930 that the Vancouver Symphony Society was revived, largely through the efforts of Elisabeth Rogers, by then a notable patron of the arts. The conductor of the re-formed 80-member Vancouver SO was Allard de Ridder, a pupil of Willem Mengelberg.
Orpheum Theatre
Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver (courtesy Vancouver Civic Theatres/photo by David Blue)

Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Professional orchestra begun in 1930. Until 1930 the history of symphony orchestras in Vancouver was one of discontinuity and uncertainty. The first Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (SO), formed in 1897 with 23 players under Adolf Gregory, gave three concerts in Dunn Hall, then disbanded. In 1907 it was revived briefly, with 36 members under Charles Ward. Another group, known as the 'Spare Time Symphony' and conducted by Oscar Ziegler, was playing in 1915 but was disbanded after his death ca 1919. In 1919 Henry Green organized a 60-member orchestra for the Vancouver Symphony Society under the leadership of F.L. Beecher (president) and Mrs B.T. (Elisabeth) Rogers (vice-president). This orchestra survived for two seasons, but financial strains and the disappearance of Green (who had been refused an annual salary of $20,000) ended its activities. In 1921 an English musician, William Raven, started the Vancouver Philharmonic, which became officially the Capitol Theatre Symphony Orchestra. With the advent of the talking motion picture this orchestra, too, lost its audience. Very little symphonic music was heard in Vancouver during the 1920s.

Beginnings of the Present Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, 1930-46

It was not until 1930 that the Vancouver Symphony Society was revived, largely through the efforts of Elisabeth Rogers, by then a notable patron of the arts. The conductor of the re-formed 80-member Vancouver SO was Allard de Ridder, a pupil of Willem Mengelberg. The first of four concerts in the 1930-1 season took place in the new Orpheum Theatre on 5 October. In de Ridder's 10 years with the orchestra he increased the annual number of concerts to seven in Vancouver and two in Victoria. The CBC broadcasts of Vancouver SO concerts began during his tenure. De Ridder programmed no Canadian works except four of his own - including his Violin Concerto. He did, however, share his podium with several distinguished guest conductors, including Arthur Benjamin, Sir Thomas Beecham, Gregori Garbovitsky, and Sir Ernest MacMillan. In 1941 de Ridder left Vancouver for Toronto, and the orchestra played for the next six years under a succession of guest conductors, including Barbirolli, Beaudet, Bernstein, Dorati, Goossens, Klemperer, Mazzoleni, and Sevitzky.

Development 1947-79

Jacques Singer (b Przemysl, Poland, 9 May 1917, d New York, 12 Aug 1980) was engaged as music director in 1947. He greatly expanded the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra's activities, inaugurating school and pop concerts, visiting smaller centres, and augmenting the orchestral program with large choral-orchestral works such as Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. Though the orchestra attracted new audiences, it was $40,000 in debt when Singer left Vancouver following the 1949-50 season.

Another period of guest conductors followed before the 1952 appointment of Irwin Hoffman (b New York City 26 Nov 1924), a protégé of Koussevitzky. During his 12 seasons with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Hoffman maintained a creditable standard of performance and added considerably to the orchestra's repertoire. He was responsible for the premieres of works by 11 Canadian composers, the addition of the popular 'Christmas Box Concerts,' and an increase in the number of school concerts. Also during Hoffman's tenure, the venue of the concerts changed in 1960 from the Orpheum Theatre and Georgia Auditorium to the new Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

When Hoffman left in 1964, Meredith Davies (b Birkenhead, England 30 Jul 1922, d New Alresford, England 9 Mar 2005) was chosen to succeed him. Davies had made a strong impression when he visited Vancouver in 1961 to conduct the North American premiere of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Vancouver International Festival. During his tenure, 1964-70, he rebuilt the orchestra, replacing veteran members with younger players (many from Europe and the US) and developing it into an ensemble of high national standing. He also gave the premiere of Ginastera's Estudios Sinfonicos and, with the Vancouver Bach Choir, the Vancouver premieres of several large choral-orchestral works, including Britten's War Requiem, Walton's Belshazzar's Feast, and Honegger's King David, as well as works of Messiaen, Berio, Henze, Penderecki, and contemporary Canadian and US composers, through a commercially sponsored 20th-century music series unique in Canada. In 1967, the symphony also began performing for Vancouver Opera productions.

When Davies left Vancouver in the autumn of 1970, the assistant conductor and former principal viola, Simon Streatfeild, served as acting music director until the 1972 appointment of Tokyo Symphony Orchestra conductor Kazuyoshi Akiyama (b Tokyo 2 Jan 1941).

In April 1977 the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra moved to its former but completely renovated home, the Orpheum Theatre. That year it also stopped performing operas for the Vancouver Opera.

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra under Akiyama made extended visits to Japan in 1974 and 1985, and toured seven cities in Canada in 1976, another seven cities in the western US in 1978, and western Canada in 1981. The orchestra hosted various special events, including in 1977 a Beethoven Festival and in 1978 a Brahms Festival, and also sponsored solo recitals by famous performers - eg Isaac Stern in 1978. By 1980 the Vancouver SO had taken its place with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the National Arts Centre Orchestra, and the Toronto Symphony, in the topmost echelon of Canadian orchestras, behind only the Toronto and the Montreal symphonies in the number of concerts given in the 1979-80 season, and boasted the largest subscription list of any orchestra in North America.

Troubled Times 1980-9

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra's fortunes took a turn for the worse in 1981 when it was forced out of the Orpheum Theatre for 13 weeks by a Canadian Union of Public Employees strike. Concerts were given in a shopping mall instead, which resulted in reduced attendance; the accumulated $424,000 deficit was doubled in one season. In the following years the troubles continued to mount: the deficit grew to unmanageable proportions, subscriptions declined, and there were contract difficulties with the musicians and turnovers in the administration.

In September 1985 the Russian conductor Rudolf Barshai (or Barshay, b Labinskaya, near Krasnodar, 28 Sep 1924) succeeded Akiyama as conductor and music director. (Akiyama retained the title of Conductor Laureate.) By then the deficit had reached $1.7 million, and a labour disagreement delayed the opening of the 1985-6 season. Barshai failed to elicit a warm response from Vancouver audiences, and despite his musical strengths in certain repertoire, he was unable to revitalize the orchestra. Emergency bailout funding from three levels of government and private donors only delayed the inevitable. In 1988 the size of the deficit caused the suspension of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra's activities between January and July.

Operations were resumed after creditors forgave the organization's $2.3 million deficit. Strong public support and major financial assistance from three levels of government and the business world set the reborn Vancouver SO on a new track. Outdoor summer concerts began in July 1988 and became a regular feature of the orchestra's schedule.

Peter McCoppin, who had been named associate conductor in December 1987, replaced Barshai with the title conductor and music advisor 1988-9, and was named principal guest conductor in 1989. The 1988-9 season (41 weeks) was so successful that a budget surplus was recorded. In 1989 the orchestra also undertook two tours to northern British Columbia, and to the Kootenays and Vancouver Island. In February 1990 regular visiting conductor Sergiu Comissiona (b Bucharest, Rumania, 16 Jun 1928, d Oklahoma City, 5 Mar 2005) was appointed music director designate; he began his duties in the fall of 1991. As music director for the 1991-2 season, Comissiona presided over a 38-week schedule that offered over 70 concerts in eight different series.

Blossoming (1991-present)

Comissiona continued fostering the strong artistic goals of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and encouraging Canadian music. Where Comissiona busied himself with the more traditional side of the orchestra, assistant conductor Clyde Mitchell (1991-2000) took on pops, light classics, and educational concerts which became a hallmark of the orchestra. Under Mitchell, the orchestra became more active in the communities around Vancouver and successfully sought out new concertgoers among that city's diverse population.

Though the artistic side of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra continued unchanged over the rocky period since the orchestra's 1988 bankruptcy, affairs in the front office did not. Though the Vancouver SO began its most lucrative annual fundraiser (the Symphony Lover's Ball, which has raised over $3.5 million since its inception and has been given annually), financial troubles were again brewing. A 1992 tour to California was cancelled due to insufficient funds, and in the fall, Diane Hoar (then CEO), was dismissed and replaced in quick succession by Graeme Page (1992-3), and Howard Jang (1993-5). Administrative personnel turned over frequently.

The board of directors, faced with a debt that grew to $1 million in 1993, moved to reduce the orchestra from 72 to 68 full-time members and 38 weeks of service. The musicians responded by attending the annual general meeting of the Vancouver Symphony Society in force and facilitating the expansion of the board to 18 members from 12, as well as seeing to the election of five new members more sympathetic to their cause. The board backed off the proposed cuts, and some financial and structural stability returned to the organization. A second foundation, The Vancouver Symphony Foundation, was also established that year.

The summer of 1994 saw the expansion of the Vancouver SO's summer programming. Ron Dumouchelle was appointed general manager of the orchestra in September 1995. He was at the centre of a brief but intense controversy in 1997 over a proposed merger of the Vancouver SO with the Vancouver Opera. The move proved highly unpopular and, after a public relations campaign led by Vancouver SO musicians, the idea was shelved.

In 1996 the Vancouver SO appointed their first composer-in-residence, Rodney Sharman, who served in this capacity 1997-2000 and as new music advisor until 2001.

The year 2000 proved to be a watershed for the Vancouver SO with the arrival of two figures who greatly affected its running, community involvement, and finances. Conductor Bramwell Tovey (formerly of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and founder of the Winnipeg New Music Festival) and general manager Jeff Alexander (formerly of the Cincinnati Symphony) brought a much more involved and activist approach to the Vancouver SO management. With a battery of community initiatives that included concerts in 13 venues over the Lower Mainland, a slew of innovative educational concerts and workshops, the controversial move of becoming the first orchestra in Canada to bring video screens into their regular concert series in order to show the musicians close up, and an overall strengthening of the orchestra's governance, there was growth in subscription and ticket sales as well as public and private sector support.

Early in the millennium, Tovey broke the world record for largest orchestra in an outdoor venue when he led the Vancouver SO and over 6,000 students at BC Place. In 2005, the orchestra recorded Tovey's score for the film Eighteen, which won Tovey a Genie award.

Although in late 2001 the players and conductor accepted a pay cut to reduce the previous season's deficit, the subsequent community involvement and popularity of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra resulted in budgetary surpluses 2004-7, making the orchestra the most financially successful and stable large orchestra in Canada at the time of writing. The organization in 2007 comprised 73 musicians, 26 staff, and 15 board members, had an operating budget of $11.2 million, gave over 150 concerts per season, and had an estimated yearly attendance of 200,000 people. In addition, Alexander and Tovey secured the construction of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra School of Music, where Vancouver SO musicians can teach in a conservatory-style setting that will also cater to the wider music community. In 2008, the orchestra's recording with James Ehnes won Grammy and Juno awards.

Commissions, Premieres, Soloists, and Staff

Soloists and Guest Conductors
Guest artists appearing with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra have included the conductors Mario Bernardi, Lawrence Foster, Stewart Goodyear, Neemi Järvi, Kazimierz Kord, Andrew Litton, Sir Yehudi Menuhin, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, and Yan Pascal Tortelier; the violinists Corey Cerovsek, James Ehnes, Nigel Kennedy, Midori, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Itzhak Perlman, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, and Pinchas Zukerman; the pianists Vladimir Ashkenazy, Yefim Bronfman, Angela Cheng, Jane Coop, Leon Fleisher, Freddy Kempf, Lang Lang, André Laplante, Yundi Lee, Louis Lortie, Murray Perahia, and (in Vancouver and on the 1985 tour of Japan) Jon Kimura Parker: the cellists Shauna Rolston and Mstislav Rostropovich; the guitarists Liona Boyd and Pepe Romero; and sopranos Renée Fleming and (at Expo 86) Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.

In addition, the orchestra has a long-standing practice of performing with pop musicians, eg Jann Arden, Ann Hampton Callaway, The Celtic Tenors, Holly Cole, Natalie MacMaster, Rita MacNeil, John McDermott, John Pizzarelli, and Spirit of the West; it has also played with comedian Rich Little.

Premieres and Commissions
On 29 Feb 1948 the Vancouver SO presented the premiere of the Violin Concerto by the US composer David Diamond. It also has premiered Robert Turner's Lyric Interlude (ca 1956) and Capriccio Concertante (Canadian tour, 1976); Ernst Friedlander's Cello Concerto No. 2 (15 Oct 1961); Michael Conway Baker's A Struggle for Dominion (26 Sep 1976), Symphony No. 1 (1 Oct 1978) and Through the Lion's Gate (1989); Frederick Schipizky's Symphonic Sketches (1982), Divertimento for String Orchestra (1984), Symphony No. 1 (1985), and From Under The Overture (1990); Rodney Sharman's Chiaroscuro (1986); and Rudolf Komorous' Sinfony No. 2 'Canadian' (1991).

After Tovey took the helm, there was a flourish of Canadian music being commissioned and performed by the Vancouver SO from such composers as Brian Current, John Estacio, Christos Hatzis, Jacques Hétu, Melissa Hui, Gary Kulesha, Alexina Louie, Kelly-Marie Murphy, and Jeff Ryan (their 2007 composer-in-residence).

The concertmasters of the orchestra have been Kathleen Carapata 1919-21, Arthur Gramm 1930-4, Jean de Rimanoczy 1934-44 and 1951-6, Adolph Koldofsky 1944-6, Albert Steinberg 1946-51 (he also conducted the Vancouver Junior Symphony Orchestra), Gideon Grau 1956-64, Jack Kessler 1964-5, Norman Nelson 1965-73, Gerald Jarvis 1973-86, and Alexander Skwartsow 1986-9. Akira Nagai became acting concertmaster in 1989 and concertmaster emeritus in 2004. Mark Fewer was concertmaster 2004-8.

The Vancouver SO's artistic direction staff in 2007 included conductor laureate Kazuyoshi Akiyama, principal pops conductor Jeff Tyzik, and assistant conductor Kenneth Hsieh.

Michael Allerton (b England 5 Mar 1935) was appointed orchestra manager in 1972, succeeding Victor White. John Smith was interim general manager 1985-6, and in 1986 Ed Oscapella was hired as executive director 1986-9; Diane Hoar occupied the new position of president and chief executive officer 1989-92 but was replaced in 1992 by Graeme Page. Edward Jang was acting manager 1993-5, followed by Ron Dumouchelle 1995-2000, and Jeff Alexander 2000- .


Baker Symphony No. 1. Akiyama conductor. ca 1977. Private recording

Canadian Classics Vol 1 Classiques Canadiens: Ridout - Champagne - Coulthard - Schafer - MacMillan - Eckhardt-Gramatté. Bernardi conductor. 1987. Centrediscs CMC-2887/(Champagne) 4-ACM 30

Cimarosa-Benjamin - Vaughan Williams. Vancouver Str O, de Rimanoczy conductor. 1951. RCI 51

David Foster: The Symphony Sessions. 1987. Atlantic 78-17991/Atlantic CD-81799

Divertimenti: Haydn - Buczynski. VSO Chamb Players. ca 1968. RCI 338

Dvořák - Weber - Glinka - Freedman Tangents. Akiyama conductor. (1976). CBC SM-296/(Freedman) 6-ACM 8

Franck Symphony in D Minor - Berlioz King Lear. Akiyama conductor. 1983. CBC SM-5033

French and Italian Opera Arias: Bizet - Gounod - Massenet - Berlioz - Bellini - Donizetti - Rossini. Forst mezzo, Bernardi conductor. 1986. CBC SM-5063

Glazunov The Seasons, Opus 67; Valses de Concert Opus 47, Opus 51. Akiyama conductor. 1988. CBC SMCD-5100

Grieg Piano Concerto in A Minor - Sibelius Karelia Suite. A. Laplante piano, Akiyama conductor. 1982. CBC SM-5020

Haydn - Stravinsky - Mozart. VSO Chamb Players. 1969. CBC SM-98/AofD SDD-2162

Holst The Planets. Vancouver Canata Singers, Akiyama conductor. 1978. CBC SM-5002

Music for Christmas: Coulthard - Somers - Washburn - et al. Vancouver Bach Choir and Children's Choir, Wedd organ, J. Phillips tenor, VSO Brass, Pullan conductor. 1984. VBC 001L

Mussorgsky-Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition - Rimsky-Korsakov Russian Easter Overture. Akiyama conductor. 1980. CBC SM-5011/Mus H Soc MHS-512124X (CD)

Respighi Pines of Rome; Roman Festivals. Akiyama conductor. 1978. CBC SM-335

Platoon, original soundtrack: Barber Adagio - Delerue. Delerue conductor. 1986. Atlantic 78-1742-1

Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1, Opus 19; Romeo and Juliet (excerpts). Staryk violin, Akiyama conductor. 1973. CBC SM-235

Saint-Marcoux Luminance. Akiyama conductor. (1984). 5-ACM 18

Salvador, original soundtrack: Delerue. Delerue conductor. 1985. Varèse Sarabande 704-400/VCD-70440 (CD)

Shostakovich Symphonies No. 1, 9. Barshai conductor. 1986. CBC SM-5074

Strauss Till Eulenspiegel; Salome's Dance; Death and Transfiguration. Akiyama conductor. 1981. CBC SM-5015

Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4. Akiyama conductor. 1980. CBC SM-5006

- Symphony No. 6. Barshai conductor. 1987. CBC SM-5083/(with Mussorgsky Night on Bald Mountain) CBC SMCD-5083

- Romeo and Juliet; Francesca da Rimini. Barshai conductor. 1985. CBC SM-5038/(with Capriccio Italien) CBC SMCD-5038

Tchaikovsky/Mussorgsky. Rudolf Barshai conductor, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. 1989. CBC 2-5083

Glazunov The Seasons. Kazuyoshi Akiyama conductor, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. 1991. CBC SMCD 5100

R. Murray Schafer: Concerti. Robert Aitken flute, Judy Loman harp, Kazuyoshi Akiyama conductor, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. 1992. CBC SMCD 5114

Serenade to Music. Bruce Pullan conductor, Vancouver Bach Choir, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. 1993. CBC SMCD 5121

Franz Liszt: Works for Piano and Orchestra. Jerome Lowenthal piano, Sergiu Comissiona, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, 1994. Music and Arts CD-803(1)

Christmas Classics. Clyde Mitchell conductor, Vancouver Bach Choir, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. 1994. Oakridge Centre

Orchestral Masterpieces. André Laplante piano, Kazuyoshi Akiyama conductor, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. 1995. Orpheum Masters KSP801-KSP804

Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances. Sergiu Comissiona conductor, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. 1995. CBC SMCD 5143

Rhapsodies. Sergiu Comissiona conductor, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, 1996. CBC SMCD 5166

Open Heart Symphony. Spirit of the West, Clyde Mitchell conductor, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. 1996. Warner Canada CD 14600 WEA

John McDermott. John McDermott, Clyde Mitchell conductor, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. 1998

A Night at the Orpheum with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra: Rita MacNeil. Rita MacNeil, Scott Macmillan conductor, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. 1999. EMI 7243 4 98974 2 7

Thine Angels Spirits. Gary Relyea bass-baritone, Sergiu Comissiona conductor, Vancouver Bach Choir, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. 1999. CBC SMCD 5189

Schumann/Wieniawski. Juliette Kang violin, Sergiu Comissiona conductor, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, 2000. CBC SMCD 5197

Music and the Soul. Clyde Mitchell conductor, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. 2000. VSO Records

Holiday Pops. Dee Daniels conductor, Jeff Tyzik conductor, Vancouver Bach Choir, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. 2000. VSO Records VS 0101

Jann Arden Live with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Jann Arden, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. 2002. Universal Music 440 0660392

Borodin. Bramwell Tovey conductor, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. 2003. CBC SMCD 5231

Korngold, Walton Violin Concertos. James Ehnes violin, Bramwell Tovey conductor, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. 2006. CBC SMCD 5241


'History and career of the Vancouver Symphony Society,' Curtain Call, Mar 1940

'Symphony, often in the red, started Green,' 'Who's who in orchestra's ranks,' Vancouver Province, 28 Dec 1963

Lower, Thelma M. 'An orchestra, a chamber group, a string quartet, and a summer music camp,' Canadian Composer, 41, Jun 1969

Mitchell, Norah, and Forster, Sheila. The Symphony Story (Vancouver 1971)

Rossiter, Sean. 'On the road with the Vancouver Symphony,' Vancouver, Sep 1976

Mertens, Susan. 'The good ship VSO,' Arts Bulletin, Oct-Nov 1976

Schreiner, John. 'VSO,' AudioScene Canada, Apr 1977

Wyman, Max. 'Vancouver: hucksterism in the concert hall,' Performing Arts in Canada, Spring 1977

Gothe, Jürgen. 'VSO: very successful orchestra,' Fugue, Apr 1978

'Happy birthday to us! The VSO takes a backward glance over 60 years,' Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Sep 1979

Edds, Jack. 'The Vancouver Symphony: a lesson in coordinated management,' Orchestra Canada, Oct 1979

'The Vancouver Symphony travelling show,' Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Mar 1980

Becker, John. Discord: The Story of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (Vancouver 1989)

Jordan, Robert. A Discography of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (Vancouver 1990)

Brunet, Robin. "A cost-cutting cacophony," B.C. Report, 1 Mar 1993

Chatelin, Ray. "Manager fired by symphony," Vancouver Province, 10 Oct 1993

Rupp, Shannon. "VSO/VO merger may pose a threat to musical culture," Georgia Straight, 16 Jan 1997

Bell, Stewart. "VSO, Opera shelve merger plan," Vancouver Sun, 21 Feb 1997

Hunter, Jennifer. "Maestro with moxie," Maclean's, 22 May 2000

Films and Videos

David Foster: The Symphony Sessions (Atlantic Video, 1987)

Whalesong (Rhombus Media 1986)

External Links