Vancouver Symphony’s Brotons: ‘This is my orchestra’

Orchestra maestro Salvador Brotons celebrates his 25th season

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

Published:

 

If You Go

What: Vancouver Symphony Orchestra 37th season-opening concert, starting Maestro Salvador Brotons’ 25th season with the orchestra.

Featuring: Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” and “Serenade” with guest violinist Anne Akiko Meyers; Sergei Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” Suites 1 and 2.

When: 7 tonight.

Where: Skyview Concert Hall, 1300 N.W. 139th St.

Tickets: $37, $50 reserved; $32 seniors and $10 students; packages available.

Information: To buy concert tickets and learn more about the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, visit www.vancouversymphony.org or call 360-735-7278.

Vancouver Symphony Orchestra schedule

To buy concert tickets and learn more about the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, visit www.vancouversymphony.org or call 360-735-7278. 

Here’s the 2015-2016 schedule.

ORCHESTRA CONCERTS

Where: Skyview Concert Hall, 1300 N.W. 139th St., Vancouver.

When: 3 p.m. Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays.

Tickets: $37, $50 reserved; $32 seniors and $10 students; packages available.

 Nov. 14 and 15: Beethoven’s "Triple Concerto" (with guest artists The Friedhoff Family) and "Symphony No. 7"; Barber’s "Essay No. 2."

• Jan. 16 and 17: Liszt’s "Prometheus"; Prokofiev’s "Piano Concerto No. 1" (with pianist Dimitri Zhgenti); Bartok’s "Concerto for Orchestra."

• Feb. 20 and 21: Gershwin’s "Porgy and Bess" and "Rhapsody in Blue" (with pianist and Pink Martini leader Thomas Lauderdale); and Copland’s "Appalachian Spring" and "El Salon Mexico." 

• April 9 and 10: Young Artists competition winners (program to be announced); Ravel’s "Mother Goose Suite"; Dukas’ "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice"; and Strauss’ "Till Eulenspiegel."

• May 21 and 22: Audience choice (to be announced); Shostakovich "Symphony No. 1" and "Symphony No. 15." 

CHAMBER SERIES

Where: Kiggins Theatre, 1011 Main St., Vancouver.

When: 3 p.m. Sundays.

Tickets: $25, $10 for children; packages available

• Oct. 18: “Piano extravaganza” featuring Vancouver pianists Cinda Redman, Lena Vozheiko-Wheaton, Kathy Edsill-Charles, Kathryn Hobbie and Michael C. Liu. Innovative program will feature two-piano groupings and a grand finale of five pianos going at once.

• Nov. 22: Guest artist Ko Iwasaki, cello, with Michael C. Liu, piano, and Igor Shakhman, clarinet. 

• Jan. 24: Silent comedy classics. Live music will accompany three silent films from the 1920s: “Never Weaken” with Harold Lloyd, “In the Goat” with Buster Keaton, and “Mighty Like a Moose” with Charley Chase.

• March 20: Annual family concert features VSO musicians and talented friends in a fun afternoon of lighthearted music.

• April 17: Guest artists Barbara Choltco, soprano, and Thomas Hwang, violin, in a concert of Hungarian music. Joined by VSO musicians and The Melegari Chamber Players.

• May 15: “The Great Stone Face” returns as live music accompanies Buster Keaton silent film classic “Steamboat Bill, Jr.”

SPECIAL EVENTS

• Dec. 12: Big Brass Horn Holiday Concert, 7 p.m., Vancouver School of Arts and Academics, 3101 Main St., with singer Shirley Nanette. Tickets are $25 or $10 for students.

• Jan. 31: 22nd annual Young Artists Competition, 1 p.m., Trinity Lutheran Church, 309 W. 39th St. Top student finalists in strings, brass/woodwinds and percussion will play their best. Free concert.

Salvador Brotons stands still and gazes into space. A rare moment of silence. He’s listening, inside his head, to Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet “Romeo and Juliet” — clearing away all other sounds and distractions, steadying himself, summoning the precisely right tempo.

Then he jabs his arms, and the 80-strong Vancouver Symphony Orchestra bursts into sudden sound — a dramatic leap into one section of this timeless tale of doomed passions and warring clans. The story is legendary, but this version is told without words. The roiling, rushing music must say it all.

Brotons talks and sings and occasionally shouts his way through comments to the musicians while they play — “Drums a little softer please, keep it very soft.” “Please don’t rush.” “Evereebodee should plaaaay right heeere.” “Very flat, please do better.” “The last two notes are staccato, very important notes!” — and when they’re done, he plunges into more critiques and corrections in friendly but businesslike fashion: “Let’s see what we can improve. …”

“If I do this,” he gestures toward the strings, admonishing them to watch him more carefully. “You must make sure the notes are all together.” To the tuba and trombones, regarding a macabre marching motif: “Very low notes. Like elephants. Let me hear it.” He counsels the French horns to tighten up, not “brrr brrr brrr” but “bop-bop-bop,” and they repeat the phrase three times over before he’s satisfied. “My eyes are getting old. Is it bar 15 or 16?” He reaches for a pencil and scribbles in his score. “Is it piano or pianissimo? It’s pianissimo here.”

Panicked tremolo from the violas must power the awful moment when much-provoked Romeo loses his temper, slaying the fiery Tybalt — and sealing his own doom. “I want to see blood on your fingers,” Brotons tells them. “It’s the end of the world. I want to feel it.”

‘Fantastic place’

This weekend, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra begins celebrating a quarter-century of partnership with Maestro Salvador Brotons. Five to seven years is a typical tenure for a conductor with one group, Brotons said, but 25 years is truly rare — especially when the relationship requires a 6,000-mile commute from Barcelona, Spain, six times a year to rehearse the VSO and lead it through six weekends of concerts. Brotons stays busy traveling elsewhere, too; in the past year, he said, he has conducted or taught in Poland, Israel, Bulgaria and all over his native Spain. He’s married to music therapist Dr. Melissa Brotons. The couple’s daughter, Clara, is studying music and film in college in New York City. Brotons is 55.

“It’s a busy life,” he laughed. Two or three weeks in the same place is unusual, he said. Maybe, he mused, the next 25 years will be “less frantic” than the last.

But Brotons is effusive, a couple days after arriving from Spain: “This is my orchestra. It is really dear to my heart. I always have a wonderful time here. I conduct orchestras all over the world, but this one is definitely my orchestra — the orchestra I have built.”

Brotons grew up in a musical family and studied the flute. He earned a doctorate at Florida State University and then went to work teaching and conducting at Portland State University, when a Vancouver violinist approached him at a concert and urged him to check out the VSO. It was barely more than a humble community band, open to all with no audition necessary, but Brotons sensed something special here.

“The community was behind it. They wanted to build something bigger,” Brotons said. The town itself was unusual, he realized — smallish but spunky and full of fascinating history, with a major airport and bigger city right next door, offering both convenience and a wider pool of musical talent.

Brotons was hired as the group’s first professional conductor in 1991. “Vancouver is a fantastic place,” he said. “It’s the community, the people. They are enthusiastic about our project. That’s the reason I come back here. I love America, and I love this place.”

The love goes both ways. Brotons is famously charismatic, lively, accessible, effusive. He always orients his audience before the show, offering historical context and a briefing on the sounds to come. The delighted smile rarely falters; along with his artistic ambition, VSO musicians credit Brotons’ endlessly positive spirit for pushing their group to grow in every way — bigger, more successful and more serious.

“This orchestra has transitioned,” said clarinetist Steve Bass (whose day job is president of Oregon Public Broadcasting). “We play stuff that most orchestras at this level don’t try. He is demanding, and he is fun to work with.”

“The audience and the donors really connect with him,” said David Smith, president of the VSO board of directors. “He’s been the face of the symphony for a long time. The orchestra has really gotten a lot more sophisticated. Every year he challenges us a little bit more.”

“A lot of conductors go out there and they are very mechanical,” said principal clarinetist and VSO manager Igor Shakhman. “Even if their technique is good, it stays mechanical. But with Salvador, there is a lot of emotion and energy. The orchestra is his instrument, and he tells a story through the music. It’s a great experience to be in the orchestra under him.

“I would like people to know what a treasure he is for Vancouver, what a remarkable situation we have here,” Shakhman said.

Brotons said, matter-of-factly: “The orchestra loves me and that’s important, When you feel loved, it gives you energy and you want to come back.”

But given the way he comes and goes, can he really get to know the musicians in the group? Brotons said he tries. He especially enjoys hanging out at post-concert receptions, when the pressure is off and folks can shoot the breeze about everything from musical projects to their families and children, he said.

Contrast that with some top-level professional European orchestras, he said, where nobody lets down their hair. “I don’t know them well,” he said. “They never talk.”

That sort of stuffiness has got to go, Brotons insisted, if classical music is to survive a world dizzy with entertainment options. The conductor who walks on, waves his arms around with his back to the audience and walks off again needs to do better, he said. “The conductor needs to establish a personal relationship with the audience,” he said. He doesn’t love rock music, but he admires and tries to emulate the way those performers fill fans’ hearts with excitement, he said.

Another way Brotons hopes to excite a wider audience: A prolific composer as well as a conductor, he was commissioned to compose the score for a stage play about the 1714 siege and bombardment of his native Barcelona and the defeat of the Catalonian region (now northeastern Spain). Brotons, a patriotic Catalonian, said he’s sure his region will achieve independence in the not-too-distant future.

The play is called “Fang i Setge” — “Mud and Siege” — and Brotons said he traveled to London to attend musicals like “Les Miserables” and “The Phantom of the Opera” to get a feel for writing hummable show tunes. Because the story is a tragic one about the siege of a city, Brotons quipped that it’s ” ‘Les Miz’ in Catalan.” It’s running now in Barcelona and will continue through next spring, he said.

“People love musicals. Nobody feels intimidated” the way they do by operas and symphonic works, he said. “They love to listen over and over again.”

But here in Vancouver, both Brotons and symphony manager Shakhman — the group’s sole full-time employee — are determined to keep raising the artistic stakes. Shakhman isn’t crazy about “Metallica with the San Francisco Symphony” and other such mash-ups of bombastic beats with strings and horns. “The industry trend is to make everything simpler and more accessible,” he said. “But instead of simplifying, I think there’s an imperative to be challenging, to be inspiring.”

For example, he said, there’s today’s concert — with special guest violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, a top-level international superstar — featuring challenging 20th century pieces by Leonard Bernstein and Sergei Prokofiev and introduced with a special on-site taping of the National Public Radio show “Philosophy Talk.” The show will dig into the way Plato influenced Bernstein and what all that says about the complex nature of love. (See accompanying story above.)

What’s an ambitious orchestra like this doing in a modest town like Vancouver?

Struggling on, Shakhman said, and reaching for greatness. A few years ago, the group cut staff and raised base pay for its musicians so it’s not too far behind what groups in Portland pay.

“It’s important to keep moving in that direction,” Shakhman said. “I don’t like to lose people.” Plus, the VSO keeps going after A-list guests — despite the fact that superstar fees for two rehearsals and two performances in a weekend can easily top $50,000, Shakhman said.

“Look, we can’t afford your full fee,” is how Shakhman begins some phone calls, he said. “Can we work something out?”

Some promptly say forget it. But these days, increasingly, they know what and where the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra is — not Canada, near Portland — and that this is the group lead by Maestro Brotons. “I’ve heard of you, you’re doing some awesome things,” is what Shakhman loves to hear. “I’ll do it if I can I play Sibelius.”

Still, Shakhman loses sleep over the VSO’s lack of a nest egg. “The stress of not having an endowment keeps me up at night. We have to raise the funding for every season,” he said. In 2011, with the Great Recession raging, the group nearly folded. As is, its budget has zigzagged over the years from as much as $800,000 to as little as $350,000, and now is about $500,000 per year, he said.

Shakhman said he’s proud and relieved that the previous fiscal season ended in the black — by a measly $11,000. “It’s not a lot,” he said. “It has not been a smooth ride.”

Brotons loves the Pacific Northwest but doesn’t get out much, he said. Over the winter when it’s rainy and he’s staying at a local hotel, he enjoys losing himself in composing work. On the other hand, when The Columbian chatted with Brotons on a balmy Tuesday morning, he seemed delighted by the sunshine. Time permitting, he said, he might drive over to Astoria, just for the fun of it.

He’d have his laptop with him, he added, and would stop along the way for some refreshment and some composing or editing. He’s always working on something, he said.

But he’d have to be back by evening, when nightly rehearsals with the VSO recommence in a rented ballroom at Club Green Meadows. There’s a lot of material to cover and just a few days to master it. In some ways, Brotons said, such urgency makes for better music.

“More intense rehearsals. More difficult programs. Increasing audience,” he said. “Every year it is a better and more solid orchestra.”