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Vancouver and Seattle: a tale of two arts cities

The Vancouver Symphony plays in Seattle, including a stunning performance. Why have the cities so diverged in their development of the arts?

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Be not smug, Seattle. Many of the same tough economics apply to both cities: a high cost of living that makes it hard to hold artists; booming real estate development that mows down funky spaces; and a rootless nerd-economy that cares much less about the grand bourgeois art forms.  Conservatives cut taxes to the arts, and liberals divert shrinking public budgets to social services.  Arts in these cities are an accordion being relentlessly squeezed.

But that broad-brush picture overlooks some encouraging aspects. Vancouver, like Seattle, has a strong early-music scene (meaning classical music before 1800). The opera company, Canada's second largest, while both being more safe and conventional than Seattle Opera also often takes a big risk, as in its world premiere of Lillian Alling in 2010, reviewed here by Crosscut's Thomas May, and the Canadian premiere of John Adams' Nixon in China.   (Portland Opera follows a similar pattern.) Coming up in May: Tan Dun's Tea: A Mirror of Soul. The annual late-January international performing arts festival, PuSh, is ambitious, wide-ranging, and exciting.

And there’s the Vancouver Symphony, which has never been stronger and is thriving under a popular and very personable conductor, Bramwell Tovey, who has headed the group for 12 years and is also a jazz pianist and a composer. Seattle Symphony is struggling with an $11 million accumulated deficit and hoping to maintain altitude at its $24-million budget, while the VSO’s more manageable budget of $13.5 million has a cushion of 30 percent public funding.

So how did they sound? Orchestras on tour – alas none scheduled for Seattle next year – are not easy to critique. The big work, in this case Prokofiev’s magnificent 5th Symphony of 1944, gets more rehearsals than normal and is usually picked to show off strengths. A name soloist always comes along as the draw, in this case the fine Canadian pianist Jon Kimura Parker,. And a splashy contemporary work by a composer in residence (usually short), starts things off (in this case an attractive commissioned premiere by Edward Top, the Dutch-born composer-in-residence).

Touring orchestras also have to adjust to all kinds of different acoustics, which may be one reason the first half, particularly the Grieg Piano Concerto, sounded raw, brass-heavy, and way too loud. (Parker obliged by pounding away.) The juiced-up performance made me long for the kind of subtle, burnished, dialed-back sound that Ludovic Morlot now elicits from the Seattle Symphony. (Rapturous standing ovation, natch.)

But then came the Prokofiev symphony, which was simply fabulous. Tovey conducts in large gestures, and soon the epic landscapes of the work emerged in all of the composer’s steely, sardonic grandeur. The iron filings in the winds became wonderfully harsh and skeletal. Trumpet cries were stabing agonies of war. The basses were lumbering wagons of the military, when not the trudging feet of victims.

This symphony is so resonant because of the extraordinary drama surrounding Russian classical music under communism. These works abound in code messages and ironies that composers like Prokofiev and Shostakovich had to employ to fool the censors and avoid execution and exile. It is a harrowing music of fear and of the soul’s dread.

 Just before Prokofiev gave the downbeat for the world premiere in January 1945, he had to pause because of the booming of artillery outside, celebrating the crossing of the Vistuala River by the Red Army, signaling the coming end of the war. The triumphant success of the work was just weeks before an exhausted Prokofiev collapsed and suffered a concussion that would ruin his health for the rest of his life. As the 5th, Beethoven haunts the work, which is Prokofiev’s one fully architectural, fully symphonic work, the work he counted as his best. It might be the last great symphony of our time, maybe the last great symphony to be written at all.

David Brewster is founder of Crosscut and editor-at-large. You can e-mail him at david.brewster@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Jan 28, 7:25 a.m. Inappropriate

Any comparison has to take into account Seattle's much larger size. The two countries count "metro areas" in a variety of ways, but if you call Seattle four million and Vancouver two and a half that would be about right. It certainly helps explain some of the differences in arts support. On the flip side, Vancouver is denser, and sometimes being able to walk to a museum or symphony encourages you to go more often.

mhays

Posted Mon, Jan 28, 7:59 a.m. Inappropriate

I love seeing these comparisons between Seattle and Vancouver. While reading it I was reminded of Ethelbert Miller, the poet, activist and head of the African-American Resource Center at Howard U in Washington DC, who says when the opera comes in, he gets nervous. Says while it's a good sign for high brow culture, it's a bad sign for everything else.

I think about that when I compare the two cities as towns as places for innovative poetry. Seattle had Roethke starting in 1947 and David Wagoner is fond of saying that there was not a poet within 500 miles at that time. True enough, but when Roethke made the switch to open form in the early 60s, he was about 50 years behind those at the leading edge of that effort. Still, better late than never. But in Vancouver in the early 60s they have had the TISH poets (which have given Canada two poets laureate). That in itself would be enough, a whole movement and generation pushing the poetics of Charles Olson (who was the first to use the term post-modern and, essentially pioneered the post-modern movement in U.S. literature), Robert Duncan (the subject of a brilliant new biography by Lisa Jarnot) and Jack Spicer, whose books sell in Vancouver almost as well as they do Spicer's home base, San Francisco. That was the energy that facilitated the seminal Vancouver Poetry Conference of 1963 which has never been equaled in Seattle.

Then there is Robin Blaser, who pushed the serial poem form ahead of just about anyone on the planet, the Kootenai School of Writing, a beachhead for Language Poetry in Vancouver, the eco-dharma school of poetry as Trevor Carolan likes to describe it, taking off from the work of people like Gary Snyder, and other such innovators. Seattle, on the other hand, has not had the same amount of activity for as long, but Jeanne Heuving's new poetics program at UW Bothell (of all places) is a wonderful addition, if heavy on the Language Poetry side of things. Their Convergence on Poetics conference last September was a major gathering of innovative writers from all over the U.S. There is great hope for Seattle, being such a literate city, with myriad natural energy sources from which to write (mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, island, fjords, &c;) but when it comes to something beyond money to make an artistic movement happen, Vancouver in my estimation, has had the edge. Now if only those opera types could make it a little easier for poets with housing (Art Space Seattle is a great start), or health care assistance (community acupuncture and Project Access NW are great starts too) or grants based on innovative prowess. Too many arts grant projects in Seattle are essentially quota programs that benefit mediocrity. The Griffin Poetry Prize, which has gone to people like John Ashberry, Robin Blaser and other bone fide innovators would be a great model to emulate and would be a drop in the bucket of the opera fans.

Splabman

Posted Mon, Jan 28, 10:55 a.m. Inappropriate

Excellent article, and of course, one must account not only for size as mhays says, but wealth - both corporate and individual - as well as philanthropic climate and tax differences in the two countries. It is astonishing to see the difference in the donor recognition pages between the Seattle Symphony and the Vancouver Symphony; the size of the VSO's list, and the levels of support, are a very small, very pale shadow of the Seattle Symphony's. It is quite the eye-opener. The levels of available support from individuals - donations and ticket purchases - and corporations is just completely different, and here Vancouver is utterly dwarfed by Seattle.

jazz1299

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