Vancouver’s 125th Birthday Music

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ September 19th, 2011. Filed under: Local Music Studies.

On Sunday (September 10) I attended a conference devoted to the century-old history of music in Vancouver, in celebration of Vancouver’s 125 birthday. Called Vancouver Snapshots 125, it was organized by David Gordon Duke on behalf of the Turning Point Ensemble and featured a week-end of performances devoted almost entirely to the music of Vancouver composers. I use the word “almost” because a Sunday concert at the Dr. Sun-yat Sen Gardens included the Orchid Ensemble performing Chinese music that would most likely have been heard by the Chinese community. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend the concerts so if any of you can shine a bit of light on the concert repertoire, I would appreciate the news.

The conference and evening concert took place in the Roundhouse Community Centre, a very appropriate setting, given its history as a bastion of Vancouver’s railway culture, especially its steam engines. A brass band was present at the arrival of the first train, housed in the Roundhouse. As a member of the Little Mountain Brass Band, I have played several times beside the engine, as we joined with the Roundhouse Community Centre in celebrating its historical arrival.

David Duke is well known as a distinguished college music educator and administrator, and an influential music critic and composer. He is an old friend of mine from music school days. But more relevant to the conference, he has had a long and abiding interest in the music of Jean Coulthard, a prominent Vancouver composer, going so far as to co-author a book on her life and musical output. More about Dr. Coulthard in a moment.

The Saturday afternoon was brilliant and beautiful as only Vancouver can be. Perhaps that explains the modest attendance, with fewer than 25 people in the room, but I fear it may also be a measure of interest. All the evidence suggests that Vancouver is rushing headlong into global status as a hub of financial and real estate activity between Asia and the rest of Canada. Its British parochial and colonial past is becoming increasingly eclipsed and progressively irrelevant. From the perspective of the South and East Asian populations of Metro Vancouver, both recent and long-standing, the city has evolved from the bleak days of draconian Canadian immigration Laws, a by-product of British Imperialism, to a welcoming cosmopolitan centre that has replaced Britain with multiculturalism at its core.  Vancouver’s music history is, for better or for worse, a by-product of the former, no matter how benign.

Mr. Bill Bruneau opened the seminar with a paper about the first 100 years of music-making (up to World War II). He expressed regret at the short amount of time, given the profuse detail he has uncovered, and despaired about its neglect. He offered us a surprising list of great composers who performed concerts in Vancouver, greats such as Ravel, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev. The explanation given for their interest in such a modest, little city was the simple fact that they could pause between the end of the railroad line, and the dock of Pacific-bound steam ships, in order to pick up a few dollars and admirers.

George Laverock, the next speaker, described Vancouver as a city ”on the edge of the continent”, requiring special efforts to attract musical talent. His point was that many organisations, especially choirs, rose to the challenge. (Mr. Laverock is also a witness to one of most monumental occasions of Vancouver’s music history, the visit of Stravinsky who had been engaged to conduct a number of concerts here. George was in the Vancouver Symphony at the time, as a trumpeter. A full accounting of the event is available on the net and in person at UBC, thanks to the efforts of The H. Colin Slim Collection.)

Janet Danielson focused on two of Vancouver’s earliest and most important composers, Jean Coulthard and Barbara Pentland. In David’s introduction, he observed that Vancouver’s music history is particularly unique in that its most important composers are women, a point that Dr. Danielson amplified. Finally, David spoke on Vancouver’s musical exiles, the great composers who had to leave in order to find a career and a following. I was reminded of an expression I have heard many times; if you want a career in Vancouver, you have to leave. In the questions and answers that followed, a fascinating observation emerged about the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. Thanks to its unique form of distance education, its piano certification program offered across Canada became a viable and very popular lifestyle alternative for women who wished to create a career instead of submitting to the restricted options offered by a patriarchal society.

As you can see, what was left out of the proceedings was the vast world of folk, popular, and “ethnic” music. As to be expected, Western Art Music (WAM) was privileged by the speakers, although they did acknowledge the presence of non-WAM music-making (as seen in the Chinese music concert and passing remarks during the conference).

Perhaps interest in Vancouver’s music history could be rejuvenated after ethnomusicologists lead the way with research directed towards a new, more inclusive history by foregrounding Vancouver’s multicultural past. Some of this research is evident in the articles about Chinese opera, seen below in my select bibliography. Pop music scholars would simultaneously create vast murals of Vancouver’s past and present everyday with Elvis Presley and Jay Chou on equal footing. First Nations music would be placed centrally in the picture while respecting their rightful claim to intellectual property. Once this work is well on its way to completion, Vancouver’s parochial music history, both folk and WAM, could then be inserted as one record among many cultural expressions, divested of its privileged status from the past to reveal the pre-occupations of just one segment of Vancouver.

Select Bibliography

Dale McIntosh History of Music in British Columbia, 1850-1950 (Sono Nis Press, 1989)

Ivan Thackery, Fifty Years of Theatre Row (Hancock House, 1980)

Lawrence Aronsen, City of Love and Revolution: Vancouver in the Sixties (New Star Books, 2010)

Red Robinson and Peggy Hodgins, Rockbound: Rock’n’Roll Encounters: 1959-1969 (Hancock House, 1983)

Red Robinson and Greg Potter, Backstage Vancouver: A Century of Entertainment Legends (Harbour Publishing, 2004)

Philip J. Thomas Twenty-five Songs for Vancouver, 1886-1986 (Vancouver School Board, 1985)

Philip J. Thomas, Songs of the Pacific Northwest (second edition, edited by Jon Bartlett, Hancock House, 2006)

Kaija Pepper Theatrical Dance in Vancouver: 1880s-1920s (Dance Collection, 2000)

Carolyn MacHardy “Evidence of an Ephemeral Art: Cantonese Opera in Vancouver’s Chinatown,” in BC Studies: The British Columbian Quarterly, number 148 (Winter 2005/06), pp. 55-92

Elizabeth Lominska Johnson, “Cantonese Opera in Its Canadian Context: The Contemporary Vitality of an Old Tradition,” in Theatre Research in Canada/ Recherches Theatrales du Canada, volume 17, number 1 (Spring/Printemps, 1996)

Huang JinPei and Allen R Thrasher, “Cantonese Music Societies on Vancouver: A Social and Historical Survey,” in Canadian Journal for Traditional Music (1993)




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