Two major Vancouver-based cultural industry players are joining forces during the Lunar New Year period to find and develop a new, “East-West literate” classical music audience unique to the Lower Mainland.
The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (VSO) partnered with Poly Culture North America, the Canadian subsidiary of the world’s third-largest auction house, to bring Chinese ensemble 12 Girls Band to Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre on February 19. The group, which was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2005, is known for its performances of contemporary pieces using classical Chinese instruments and has a large following in China, South Korea and Japan.
VSO president Kelly Tweeddale, who helped bring the group to Vancouver along with Poly Culture North America CEO Chen Yi, said the 12 Girls Band was chosen from a large number of potential performers that would cater to Vancouver’s unique blend of western and Asian audiences, an aspect of the Lower Mainland’s demographic that both groups would like to cultivate further.
“The first thing is doing high-quality presentations such as the 12 Girls Band, where you are bringing in something that’s going to be entertaining regardless of a person’s cultural influence, but while also having a distinctness of coming from somewhere different,” Tweeddale said. “It’s our responsibility that we don’t just promote it to certain audiences…. These are some of the oldest instruments in mankind, and to learn how they are played, that is naturally appealing.”
While this is not the first time the two organizations have collaborated on a performance – they co-operated in November 2016 to bring the China Philharmonic Orchestra to Vancouver during Poly Culture’s official launch in North America – executives from both groups said this year’s joint effort is the start of an attempt to carve out a new market segment in Vancouver’s cultural scene, one that is equally adept at appreciating orchestral traditions of the West and those of other regions.
In 2017, the two groups signed a memorandum of understanding in which they agreed to “explore the potential to work together in a number of areas of mutual interest,” with concerts, co-presentations, educational opportunities and tours.
The 12 Girls Band is one of the first events under the agreement. In addition to the performance, the musicians are scheduled to give a master class to local music schools on instruments such as the erhu fiddle and the guzheng zither.
“One of our goals is to make traditional Chinese culture more well known in the West – our exhibits in the last year featuring Chinese bronze and jade collections demonstrate our efforts – but traditional music can be somewhat stark for western listeners not used to the sounds and arrangements,” Chen said. “With the 12 Girls Band, it’s something that I think everyone can appreciate, and I think it has the potential of bringing together both Chinese and western audiences here in Vancouver.”
It’s not the VSO’s first outreach to Asia and its representative communities in B.C. The orchestra has hosted themed performances annually during festivals like Lunar New Year to target audiences in communities such as the local Chinese and Korean populations. The orchestra also toured South Korea and China in its 2008 Asia tour.
But Tweeddale noted that the VSO has learned that its efforts so far to focus on a community as large and ingrained as the local Chinese-Canadian population haven’t been enough. To cultivate a larger audience with continuous demand, a deeper effort needed to be made.
“I think what we’ve learned with the Lunar New Year celebrations … is that it really needs to be more than a concert,” Tweeddale said, noting the VSO has added the lion dance, red envelopes for guests and more casual festivities in the lobby of the Orpheum.
“Those types of things are rich cultural traditions that, for many Canadians, we learn why they happen as they happen. Even the exact date of where this event sits during the two-week celebration period is critical; you can neither be too early nor too late.”
For Poly Culture, the challenge is the opposite: how to establish itself as a major local Vancouver art-scene player when its roots are from in China. Its name recognition is already strong among newer Chinese immigrants from the mainland market that the VSO is seeking to appeal to, but it is seeking a stronger foothold as a Canadian presence.
In its first year in Vancouver, Poly has held nine major art exhibitions at its gallery downtown, Chen said. And while the exhibits have garnered strong interest from locals, Chen said the pace and the frequency of the exhibits hampered Vancouverites’ ability to develop deeper appreciation of the works.
That’s why Poly Culture plans to cut the number of exhibits this year to three or four, starting with an exhibit featuring tea-service pottery made from clay in China’s renowned Yixing region – among the most treasured works of art in China’s tea culture. The exhibit started on February 17 at the Poly gallery.
Poly Culture also helped sponsor Vancouver Art Gallery’s Claude Monet exhibit this past summer. Tweeddale said the VSO’s agreement with Poly Culture could generate additional opportunities for the orchestra such as helping it expand into multimedia performances.