Eight years ago, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s artistic director, Bramwell Tovey, had a vision: to open a community music school adjacent to the Orpheum Theatre, where orchestra members could teach aspiring musicians of all ages and backgrounds.
Today, Tovey saw that dream fulfilled, with the unveiling of the $30-million VSO School of Music at 843 Seymour Street, a 25,000-square-foot purpose-built music school featuring 18 acoustically designed teaching studios, two classrooms, six practice rooms, a two-storey height ensemble room, and a state-of-the-art recital hall.
“We believe that this building, in this particular place, is a seed that has been planted in the middle of our great city, where we can take all the wonderful things that the city represents...and we can take our love of music and the joy of music and bring it to the lives of children across the city,” said Tovey at a news conference today held in the school’s recital hall. “The great thing about playing a musical instrument for a kid is if you’re holding a musical instrument, you can’t hold a cigarette. You can’t hold a knife, you can’t hold a joint, you can’t hold a crack pipe, you can’t hold a needle, and you can’t hold a gun. Music has that kind of power. And it’s that kind of power that we’re seeking to harness within this building.”
Tovey was joined by VSO president and CEO Jeff Alexander; VSO board chair Arthur Willms; VSO School of Music executive director Shaun Taylor; City of Vancouver Councillor Kerry Jang; B.C. Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development Ida Chong; Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages James Moore; Wall Financial Group president Bruno Wall, who oversaw construction of the school; and Rob Macdonald of Macdonald Development Corporation. MDC purchased the property, formerly occupied by the Capital 6 movie theatre, and in 2005 received the largest cultural-amenity density bonus in the city’s history for the creation of the music school on the site, which also includes a residential tower.
The project was financed through the density transfer, as well as support from the provincial and federal governments, in addition to private donations.
“It was just a pipe dream to start with,” remarked Tovey later. “For me, there have been several great things about our time in the last 10 years: the China tour, Korea tour, Eastern tour, the Grammy, the Junos. This is the jewel in the crown.”¦And of course it’s not just a building, it’s got to be about the people. The hard work is just to come.”
The school will offer a range of programs, with private tuition all orchestral instruments as well as a piano, voice, classical guitar, and world instruments including koto, bodhran, fiddle, sitar, and tabla. There will also be group classes in music appreciation, music theory and history, chamber music, and Alexander Technique. Early music education for infants as young as three months will also be taught through the Colourstrings program.Of the 48 faculty members contracted to teach, 32 are full-time members of the VSO.
The school has been equipped with a total of 35 new Steinway and Yamaha pianos, and Yamaha Disklavier electronic pianos. There are also 11 computer listening stations with access to the Naxos music library, as well as a sheet music and gift shop and publicly accessible cafe.
The recital hall, which is acoustically and vibrationally isolated, has a motorized flooring system allowing for four different seating configurations, ranging from a 70-seat catered event through to a 120-seat raked concert hall up to a 125-seat flat floor meeting. It is also equipped with professional-grade recording equipment and sound booth, which was funded by a $365,705 grant from Heritage Canada’s Cultural Spaces Canada Program.“The acoustic variability of this room, the flooring system, the professional lighting and sound equipment, it really makes this facility of interest and hopefully access to more than just parents and students that come here,” said Taylor.
The hall, which has two dressing rooms, is also equipped for video conferencing for distance learning, which Tovey envisions using to connect students from across the province to master-classes from visiting artists. “I have already got the agreement of many of the distinguished guest artists who are to visit the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in the next two or three years that they will happily give master-classes for our pupils in this room,” he said. “Yo-Yo Ma, for instance. Yo-Yo was here recently....I told him all about the school over dinner and he agreed immediately, as indeed have so many other instrumentalists. They will be more than happy to do web broadcasts from this space for the benefit of children and those interested across the country.”
Tovey added that he hoped to send faculty members to northern B.C., or the Yukon to teach for a short period, and then return and provide web-based, long-distance teaching. “My dream would be to have 100 of these kids from the northern provinces down on-stage, playing with the VSO on the Orpheum stage,” he said.
The new VSO School of Music will not be in competition with the Vancouver Academy of Music, Taylor insisted. “We’ve kept the Vancouver Academy of Music well aware of what’s going on here,” he said. “They’re at capacity. The academy has been unable to accept students for approximately three to five years in particular instruments. So we know that there’s capacity in Vancouver and with the population increasing downtown and all the new building in this particular area, we know there’s interest.”
He added that the makeup of the student population at the VSO School of Music would be quite different: “Typically at a community music school, usually 80 to 85 percent of the students are school-aged. However, given our location in the downtown core we could see as much as 40 percent of the population of this school being adults and seniors. So we’re offering different programming through the distance-learning component, the world music component, music appreciation courses, things that aren’t currently being offered at the Academy of Music.”
The school will have a capacity for 1,500 weekly students, and Taylor envisions the first group of students, who will begin lessons in September 6, 2011, to number around 200. Private lessons will be priced at $75 per hour, with most students starting with half-hour lessons. Registration for lessons begins May 30 and a bursary fund has been set up to provide financial assistance for students who need it. The recital hall will be available for rentals starting June 11, and the facility will open to the public August 2.