As far as celebrity sightings go, it doesn't quite rank with bumping into Madonna on Robson Street or idling next to Todd Bertuzzi's Hummer at a West Vancouver stop sign, but Mark Fewer is excited nonetheless. Seated in a Granville Mall eatery, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra's concertmaster points across the room at a lanky figure angling toward a table in the rear.
"He is un-fricking-believable," Fewer says of Jeff Alexander, his organization's president and general manager. "I haven't had a lot of experience in the orchestral world, so I can't say, 'Oh, yeah, he's the best general manager around.' But I've seen what he's capable of doing and how he treats the people in the band, and he's amazing. There's no question that the VSO had a rough ride for a while, but right now seems a very positive time, and I would really credit that man, along with Bramwell Tovey."
Fewer's enthusiasm echoes what many listeners have been saying ever since conductor Tovey came onboard as the VSO's music director in 2000. Vancouver's flagship orchestra is sounding better than it has in decades, and not only is it bringing new life to the classical repertoire, it's also tackling contemporary music with uncommon verve. It's a boom time for new music in this city, and the Newfoundland-born Fewer is happy to be here for it.
"I would love to see us have a presence that attracts attention from the international world, so that people would go, 'For new-music projects in general, if you want to find an orchestra that's really got its game going, you want the VSO,'?" he says. "We're not there yet, but I'd love to see that happen."
And if it does, it will be thanks to concerts like the two the VSO has booked for the Orpheum on Saturday and Monday (November 5 and 7). Topping the bill will be a Tovey-led reading of Igor Stravinsky's 1947 masterpiece, Petrouchka, while the band plans on opening with Ei-Sho, a new work by Japan's Michi Kitazume featuring the sho, an elaborate, harmonicalike instrument that's more commonly heard as part of a traditional court-music ensemble. Sandwiched in the middle will be American composer John Adams's The Dharma at Big Sur, a radiant tribute to California minimalists Terry Riley and Lou Harrison, with Fewer as soloist. It's a piece the violinist first brought to Tovey's attention, and he's excited about giving it its Canadian premiere-in part because Adams's paean to California's rugged coastline mirrors his own experience of moving west.
"There's this sense that you're transplanting yourself from your home territory and going into the open range," Fewer explains. "That's a very distinctively western idea, and although that open range is very different than it was, say, in the 1800s, you still have some of that energy left over. You still have people coming to the west and going, 'Let's see what we can do!' And I love that. I love the idea that you don't have to actually show up and fit yourself into the system....It's a new beginning: 'Hey, I can do whatever I want with my artistic voice. I can go in this direction or that direction, and if I fail, so what?'?"
The Dharma at Big Sur, which Adams completed in 2003, asks its soloist-and the orchestra-to take more than a few musical risks. Its first movement mirrors the alap, or slower portion of an Indian raga, while the second section leaps forward at a frantic pace.
And it's not only the work's intensity that's posing a challenge to the former Torontonian. Dharma was originally scored for the Turtle Island String Quartet's Tracy Silverman, who plays a custom-made six-string electric violin, and in order to render it properly Fewer has had to buy a similar instrument fitted with extra bass strings that extend its range deep into the bass clef.
"I was calling around to different people, and what I found was that a lot of companies that make electric fiddles make five-string and seven-string models, but they don't make six-string ones," he says. "Eventually I came across a guy named Eric Jensen who's in Seattle, and he's made me this instrument. It's very sleek and sexy-looking, and it comes from a man who, I get the impression, has really found his voice in making instruments for people."
Learning the new instrument, with its aerodynamic shape and thicker strings, has posed as many problems as memorizing Adams's complex and exuberant score.
"On the good days," says Fewer, "my head feels like it's gone to a massage parlour after I've played it for a while. On the bad days, my fillings feel like they're going to fall out.
"Still," he adds, "this instrument is making me want to write music-and I'm not a guy who's ever composed. Since it doesn't make any sound if it's not plugged in, at three o'clock in the morning I'll be tooling around on my six-string, and I'll be having these thoughts of maybe writing a piece. I've never had that come up before in my life, so that's totally exciting."
With a new job, a new home, a new band, a new instrument, and a powerful new work to premiere, Fewer has good reason to be enthusiastic. And given the violinist's future plans, which include collaborating with local jazz performers, so do music-lovers in this increasingly vibrant town.