Music to our ears: Vancouver Symphony Orchestra switches it up with three major new thrusts in its new season

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      As one of the most stable arts organizations in the city, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra doesn't have to mix it up too much. A steady diet of big classical names, Pops concerts, and carefully balanced traditional and challenging fare keeps the crowds coming in.

      That's why its season announcement for 2013-14 is such a suprise. The venerable institution is adding not one but three major new events to its calendar, and all of them promise to liven up the cultural landscape--especially in a year when the semi-classical festival MusicFest is taking a hiatus.

      Most intriguing of all is the brand new VSO Spring Festival, which will focus on the works of either a composer or a musical era each year. Sergei Rachmaninoff is the subject of the inaugural event, with Ukrainian-Australian star pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk performing all five of the genius's finger-pummelling yet gorgeous works for piano and orchestra, plus other pieces, with the VSO over four concerts with post-show discussions. It takes place in late March and early April, a pretty clear zone for anything resembling a festival in this town.

      In what appears to be a new initiative to reach out to the city's growing Asian population (something everyone from Ballet BC and the Vancouver Opera have been doing), the VSO is also launching a Pacific Rim Celebration meant to focus on different cultures each year. For 2014, the VSO marks Chinese New Year with a concert conducted by Shanghai and Guanzhou Symphony Orchestra maestro Long Yu that includes a premiere by celebrated Chinese composer Tan Dun (who composed the opera Tea: A Mirror of Soul that the Vancouver Opera presents this spring).  Elsewhere for the event, the VSO will feature Korean-American violin whiz Sarah Chang and local Korean musicians and choirs.

      And in what may be its boldest venture, the VSO, always a supporter of new compositions (especially through its composer in residence program), is jumping into that realm with more force, introducting a New Music Festival in January 2014. It will focus on a different international composer each year, as well as works by Canadian composers, and th VSO composer-in-residence. The first one will put the spotlight on Australian talent Bret Dean, and will present performers like the Rascher Saxophone Quartet from Germany and Vancouver's own Standing Wave, as well as members of the VSO.

      It's not like the VSO is abandoning its tried-and-true formula: such crowd-pulling names as Yefim Bronfman, Nicola Benedetti, Evelyn Glennioe, Joyce Yang, James Ehnes, and, yes, maestro Simon Wright still pepper the program. And amid the wide selection of poppier programs, we're most psyched for January 2014's Fifty Years of James Bond. The programming is anchored by some truly epic works of classical music, including nothing less than Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 and Carl Orff's Carmina Burana--a rarity on the same season roster.

      So things aren't exactly getting different at the VSO; think of it as more of a good thing.