Vancouver Symphony Orchestra commits to a 2020-21 season at public townhall

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      The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra committed to a 2020-21 season at a live-stream public townhall meeting yesterday to discuss impacts of COVID-19 on the organization.

      "Yes, we will have a 2020-21 season, but it's still pretty difficult to predict how it will look," assured Angela Elster, president and CEO of the VSO and the VSO School of Music, who was joined on a panel by music director Otto Tausk, from his home in the Netherlands, and Etienne Bruson, Vancouver Symphony Society board chair.

      "We've submitted our plan to the government of B.C," she added, "and we're building our digital concert hall so we can bring music to you live and virtually....This is a chance for you to continue to get to know your orchestra and meet the musicians in their homes, to meet their pets, and find out what inspired them to be musicians."

      She said the organization will experiment this summer with live performances in smaller groups.

      Tausk said he was inspired by the challenge of finding smaller-scale chamber pieces for a season when the full orchestra might not be able to gather because of social-distancing measures and limits to gatherings at 50 people.

      "I've been finding new repertoire, and there is so much gold and so many beautiful works that I actually can't wait to present online, or if we manage to make ensembles and go into the community and bring it to you in smaller chamber repertoire," he said with enthusiasm. "It will be very different than what we imagined presenting to you next season. But it's much more exciting than we could actually imagine right now.

      "Something I feel is different from live concerts in many ways, but that has got advantages as well, is that as an [online] audience you become really close to the musicians and you can really focus on certain lines that you hear," he added.

      He said that, since it may be hard or impossible for international soloists to fly in, "Let's look at what's really nearby and feature those local musicians and find our treasures nearby."

      Indeed, the organization is reporting at least a few positives to the season that was cut short in March, but continued virtually. Bruson reported that the VSO had reached an audience of half a million in 2020, and had built the reach of its music school online.

      On the downside, the organization has lost at least 40 percent of its revenue from ticket sales. 

      Balancing the budget will rely on the continued support of private donors and sponsors, Bruson said, adding that federal wage subsidies have been a key to keeping the organization together.

      "There are urgent elements we need to do: number one is to access the Orpheum's large stage, where we can be socially distanced, and where there is high quality recording equipment," Bruson said. 

      Taking questions from subscribers and others in the audience, the VSO was asked a pointed question about what it's doing to boost diversity within its organization and programming.

      "We are committed to equity and diversity and to having our eyes opened and hearts opened to finding new ways to be inclusive," Elster said, adding the organization already has an active Indigenous council that advises the VSO.

      Among the other challenges that remain is that Tausk is holed up, for now, in the Netherlands. But he says he's been able to meet with musicians on a virtual platform every week.

      "To be very honest, I don't know what happens to an orchestra that doesn't play together for a very long time; I've never experienced that," Tausk said. "Making music with colleagues is really important—almost as important as eating and drinking for a musician.

      "It's really important to have a beautiful venue where we can make recordings," he added of the need for musicians, if not necessarily audiences, to access the Orpheum this season. "An orchestra is a team and you need to come together."