The new face of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra
When he joined the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, principal oboist Roger Cole was a fresh-faced 22-year-old graduate of the Juilliard School, embarking on his career as a professional orchestra player. That was in 1976, and for the ensuing 35 years, Cole was one of many baby boomers in the VSO who weathered the ups and downs of the music biz, gaining a few grey hairs along the way.
Audiences attending a VSO concert 10 or even five years ago would hear music performed largely by—to put it politely—a “mature” crop of musicians. Then came the retirements: flutist Camille Churchfield, in 2005 after 29 years; timpanist Don Adams, in 2007 after 50 years; principal horn player Brian G’froerer, who left in 2008 after 34 years; and principal double bassist Kenneth Friedman, in 2009 after 36 years—to cite just a handful.
“There were a whole slew of us that came in between ’74 and ’77,” observes Cole in a phone conversation with the Straight. “A lot of players moved on, and I was one of the few that’s remained here [in the wind section].”
Enter Generation Y: violinists like 32-year-old Jennie Press, who joined in 2004, and 31-year-old concertmaster Dale Barltrop, who joined three years ago. More recent hires include 26-year-old piccoloist and assistant principal flutist Nadia Kyne, and 26-year-old second clarinetist Todd Cope, both fresh out of school.
“You know, the orchestra’s a community, and like any community, it renews itself,” remarks music director Bramwell Tovey, who came to the VSO in 2000, in conversation at the VSO offices. “We’re not frozen in time. We grow old and move on. It’s changed a lot [since 2000].…We’ve now got a lot of young faces. They’re keen to do well.”
Those words certainly describe Cope, originally from Dallas, Texas, who is just completing his first season with the orchestra after graduating from the University of Cincinnati and playing with Miami’s New World Symphony, an orchestral academy. “When I was at Cincinnati, we would have, like, 10 rehearsals for one concert a semester, and here it’s like two, three rehearsals and boom, concert,” the amiable Cope, who looks even younger than his 26 years, relates in a conversation at the VSO offices. “So the learning curve is, like, you’ve got to be so prepared.…For some of these pieces, this is my first time to ever play them, but maybe for someone down the road, this is their 20th time. I have a big Tupperware container and I carry 50 or 60 reeds in there, and I’m going through them all the time.”
Kyne, sitting with Cope, nods in agreement. Having grown up in Vancouver and studied at the Vancouver Academy of Music before earning degrees at the Curtis Institute of Music and Juilliard, the soft-spoken Kyne says she’s very conscious of the need to live up to her position. “I think I put the pressure on myself, especially since I was a student here [in Vancouver] and I feel like I’m a professional now. Roger taught my first orchestral wind class, at the academy, and I still remember some of the things Roger talked about. So sometimes if I’m playing principal on a piece, I’ll be sitting next to Roger and it’s so amazing. He treats me like a colleague, and that treatment sort of elevates me to that [professional] mentality.”
Second assistant concertmaster Jennie Press is now in her eighth season with the orchestra. But she remembers the nerves that accompanied her first few concerts with the VSO, which she joined directly after her undergraduate studies at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. “I had always had confidence in my own playing when I was at university and I didn’t feel very nervous playing symphony concerts back then,” she remarks, over the phone. “But when I got [here] and all of a sudden I wasn’t classified as a student anymore, I didn’t have that cushion of, if I made a mistake, ‘Well, she’s just a student.’ I was a little intimidated by that—that now it’s the real world and now you do have to bring your A game every day.”
If there’s a downside to young orchestral players, it’s that they’re still learning how to play in an ensemble, Barltrop allows, in a separate conversation at the VSO offices. “Ultimately, when you enter the professional world, it’s still a very steep learning curve and you have to be easily adaptable, otherwise you won’t last,” he says. “You won’t get tenure. You won’t pass your trial, and ‘goodbye.’ I’ve had friends that have come out of school, gone into an orchestra, and haven’t really adjusted well, and didn’t make it. Not because they weren’t fabulous players, but because they weren’t so mindful or respectful of orchestral dynamics.…Some students will come into an orchestra and play like they’re soloists, or really lay it down. And of course that doesn’t go over very well.”
But what the young players lack in experience, they make up for in enthusiasm and energy, he adds. “When you’re younger, you come in with more of a can-do kind of attitude. Younger musicians are a little less inhibited in their thinking, and so I think there’s a sense of perhaps adventure and pioneering new programming and putting more contemporary, more modern works on our programs.”
Tovey notes that having more young players in the ensemble is pushing him to take more chances with the pieces he chooses and the interpretations he does. “There are certain traditions that people observe [with classic repertoire],” he explains, “and I find myself questioning those traditions. Having young people around is good, because they have no experience and they’re not going to give you any hassle. The older people will say, ‘Why the hell are you doing that?’ Whereas the young people will say, ‘Oh, that’s how it goes.’ ”
As for the veteran Cole, he has nothing but praise for the new generation taking up the posts of the musicians with whom he played for decades. “An orchestra is like a family,” he says. “It needs grandparents, it needs great-grandparents, it needs children, it needs grandchildren. It’s like there needs to be at least three generations in every orchestra, and the new players will bring their exuberance and their energy, and their excitement about having won a job in a symphony orchestra, which is exceptionally difficult now.…We’ve developed a new wind section that is as good if not better than the old wind section, and that’s in large part due to the fact that players just keep getting better and better. It’s sort of like sports—the bar keeps getting higher and higher.”