Conductor Ken Hsieh says it hasn't always been easy building a community orchestra from the ground up.
Back in 2003, the Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra was founded without any office, without paid staff, and purely on the passion of those who wanted to offer an opportunity to young classical musicians to hone their skills.
Hsieh, the charismatic music director, and various volunteers persevered. And along the way, some of the orchestra's musicians went on to achieve great success.
Luke Kim, now a cellist with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, has performed as a soloist in Europe and Asia.
VSO principal second violinist Jason Ho played with the Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra and even served as its concert master.
James Robertson, a horn player with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, is another alumnus. And there are others with symphonies in New Zealand, Asia, and elsewhere in North America.
Robertson even wrote Hsieh a letter of appreciation, saying if it hadn't been for his Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra experience, he likely wouldn't have been hired in Winnipeg. It touched the conductor's heart.
"Money can't buy that feeling," Hsieh told the Straight by phone. "It makes me feel guilty if I ever want to walk away."
Hsieh admitted that there have been times when he questioned if he should continue with the local symphony, given the daunting financial challenges. His career as a conductor is already flourishing in Asia, but through it all, he's continued returning home and maintained his commitment to the local players.
"Young musicians grow from performing, not only from practising," Hsieh said. "The more performing they do, the more comfortable they get."
To celebrate the launch of its 15th season on Sunday (September 10), the Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra will perform one of classical music’s greatest compositions, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, a.k.a. the “Choral”.
Hsieh and the musicians will be joined by four soloists from the Vancouver Bach Choir at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts.
To Hsieh, Beethoven’s final symphony made sense because it brings people together—such as when Leonard Bernstein chose it as the centrepiece of the Berlin Celebration Concert to commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Hsieh selected the same music to bring everyone together who's participated in the growth of the orchestra in its first 15 years.
“I’m not going to change the world like Leonard Bernstein did,” Hsieh quipped, “but there is a brotherhood in Beethoven’s Ninth.”
According to Hsieh, one of the turning points in the evolution of the VMO was taking on the Nutcracker in 2009 with the Goh Ballet. The symphony is also unionized, which has added another degree of professionalism. This year, it's working with singers, which, according to Hsieh, means orchestra players must be especially attentive.
But there's still more to be done after Sunday's big show.
"I think the biggest challenge right now is that we don't have a home," Hsieh said said. "We don't even have a paid administration."
Despite this, the VMO still manages to schedule 10 to 12 weeks of concerts per year, including a recent performance at the Vancouver Playhouse as part of TaiwanFest. And Hsieh, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, said that reaching the 15th year is a genuine milestone, given all the sacrifices made along the way.
"My hope over the next five to 10 to 15 years is that we will have an office, we will have some kind of home where we can rehearse, and we will have more concerts to give to our young professionals."