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?
Crosscut archive image.

Bramwell Tovey, conductor of the Vancouver Symphony

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

Last week, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra kicked off its West Coast tour with a concert at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall. The orchestra turned in a performance rather like the Seahawks: an awkward first half followed by a stunning second half, sending Prokofiev far over the moon.

More about the concert below, but first some thoughts comparing Vancouver and Seattle as arts cities.  Both cities are rich, full of arts appreciators, about the same size. Yet by most measures of artistic achievement, Seattle ranks far ahead of Vancouver. How come?

More than two decades ago I received a visitor from Vancouver to my offices at Seattle Weekly. This cultivated Londoner wanted to encourage us to start, with him, a version of the Weekly in Vancouver, with emphasis on sophisticated arts coverage. He fondly imagined (these were the late 1980s, when such delusions were still alive) that good arts criticism would develop audiences who would demand a higher caliber of arts performances, particularly music.

The publishing venture never happened, but it did prompt a serious look at Vancouver media and the arts. There wasn’t much back then: a smallish Vancouver Arts Gallery, an opera company that had a few high moments when Joan Sutherland’s husband was its conductor and could attract the aging, great soprano. Pretty good theater and ballet. Mediocre performance venues. Some lively wrong-side-of-the-tracks arts in East Vancouver.

Seattle, meanwhile, had the Big Five (opera, symphony, ballet, art museum, theater), all growing rapidly and about to enter into a decade in which a billion dollars of new arts buildings were going up. This is highly unusual for a city of our mid-size, where normally only one or two arts organizations has a big budget a high aspirations.

The disparity had several explanations. Canadian arts get far more public subsidy than ours, but an awkward amount – not enough to create excellence, but enough to discourage private donations. That funding is also unstable, as when B.C. cut arts funding by more than half in 2009, though much of this was later restored albeit nowhere near the levels promised when the BC Lottery Fund was set up.

Vancouver is a city without the kind of striving-for-national-attention business establishment that Seattle had in those building decades, in part because the B.C. economy is resource-based and many of the corporate offices are in the suburbs, not downtown, and headquarters tend to be in Calgary, Montreal, and Toronto. (Developers make a lot more money building condos than office towers in glittering downtown Vancouver.) And as “Canada’s California,” Vancouver is more about enjoying the outdoors and the laid-back, counter-cultural life than using high arts to attract corporate employees and to stimulate downtown real estate (the Seattle formula).

Seattle, if anything, over-achieved. Now all of our majors are struggling financially and scaling back, and we keep shedding theater companies and small musical groups.  Vancouver still has many of the same handicaps. You would think, with an Expo and a Winter Games, that it would have built first-class performance spaces, but the VSO is still confined to the Orpheum, a converted movie palace, and Vancouver Opera makes do in the remodeled but acoustically ungainly Queen Elizabeth Hall. One truly fine music venue is the Chan Centre at U.B.C., but it's a small venue with lots of demand on the space from the university and far out on the edge of town.

The Vancouver Art Gallery is currently paralyzed by a civic debate about whether to build a big new museum or to fix up the small one and build a series of satellite museums. One big collector who is also the chair of the VAG Foundation, Michael Audain, is sending his fabulous collection to Whistler.

And there are many recent casualties, in part because the B.C. government is scaling back support of the arts further. The beloved Vancouver Playhouse, scene of the most serious theater, has just disbanded after 49 years. MusicFest Vancouver, a summer festival, has suspended operations. Ballet BC has managed to return from the brink of extinction. The latest blow is the closing of the Waldorf Hotel, a funky cultural center that is the heart of East Vancouver. The city had done better than Seattle in creating art spaces in less affluent neighborhoods, but now a mainstay of that world has been lost (though the arts advocates are fighting back).

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.


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