A Great Year for the VRS!

logoThe Vancouver Recital Society held its Annual General Meeting recently to celebrate some of the successes of the past year, and by any measure, 2013-14 was an extremely successful year for the VRS.

Selling out seven concerts – in the Orpheum, Chan Centre and Vancouver Playhouse theatres – meant that ticket sales doubled from the season before. And the good news continues into this season, with subscription income for 2014-15 up 20% over last year.

After undertaking the largest consultation project in our history, the VRS was successfully rebranded with a vibrant new look that is instantly recognizable online and in print, and we adopted a new Mission, Vision and Values to guide us.

IMG_8772I have also worked hard to enhance every aspect of the patron experience, improving everything from how our phones are answered to how tickets are received (and now even printed at home), including a new look for our concert programs and a new voice writing our program notes — Donald Gislason.

And we completely streamlined the VRS website experience, which now features at-a-glance videos of every artist and a much simpler process to buy concert tickets online.

Yet despite these investments in rebranding, technology and infrastructure, our audited statements show the VRS generated a surplus of $44,000 in the 2013-14 fiscal year. I’m particularly proud of the fact that VRS expenses are lower today than they were seven years ago.

IMG_9345When I first started at the beginning of the 2013-14 season, the organization had lost two Executive Directors in just two years and was at a standstill. But I took on the challenge with the same dedication I’ve demonstrated to the VRS since I became its first intern more than thirty years ago, then later as a member and Vice President of the Board of Directors, and finally as Chair of the Futures Committee.

The VRS has always been a team effort. When we asked for the advice and support of VRS patrons, they engaged with us and came back in record numbers. So it is the entire family of the VRS that should take pride in these accomplishments – staff, everyone that attends concerts, volunteers their time, subscribes to our series, donates to the Society and sponsors our concerts.

Thanks to the entire VRS family, the 2013-14 season was a very good year and one we can all be proud of! And 2014-15 is shaping up equally well.

Sean Bickerton,
Executive Director

A Tribute To Gerald Obre (1952 – 2014)


A Balinesian feast! Gerald Obre (L)

Following is the Eulogy I gave for Gerald Obre at the memorial services held for him at Christ Church Cathedral on Saturday, August 23, presided over by our good friend Peter Elliott, Dean of Christ Church Cathedral:

I’m a friend of Gerald Obre and it’s good to see so many friends and family of Gerald here today.

There are no words adequate to describe the sense of loss we all feel; or to express those last thoughts we wish we’d had a chance to share with Gerald. There is no way now to hug him one last time, and there is nothing I can say that will call his infectious laugh forth once more to ring out, that we might laugh with him one more time.

And yet, all I could think about this last week was how lucky we all are – and I mean everyone here in this magnificent cathedral – lucky beyond measure to have lived in a world large enough to contain a Gerald Obre!

All of us who knew him, those of us on the earth fortunate to call him uncle, or friend or brother or lover are a very privileged few.

Because I think the only reason we all really know what true exultation is, is because we’ve seen Gerald ranting away happily at us about the amazing flavor of spot prawns! Or smoked sea salt! Or that stunning new cashmere sweater he just happened to find half-price on sale at Holts!

We all know what true unadulterated joy is because we saw his delight when we roared our approval for the irresistibly delicious, pomegranate molasses-glazed, maple-smoked bacon he served to us on skewers as a nibbly with our drinks!

And we know what true dedication to perfection is, because of all the friends contributing courses to a Millennium New Year’s dinner, only Gerald actually brought a plating diagram along to ensure he and his partner Glen got every single element of the complex dish they’d prepared onto each plate perfectly in place.

But that is not all or even the half of Gerald, even though that alone would be enough to laud him and honor his passing here today.

Gerald sometimes seemed so open to the world and so vulnerable that we all, I think, felt a bit protective towards him. Yet he was made of stronger stuff than any of us realized! Just think for a moment of what he’s overcome to make this long journey with us. Think too of how often you ever heard him complain? Never, in my experience. Not once, even in the darkest hours.

When he was first diagnosed with cancer, Reverend Elliott and Thomas Roach — who have been true angels throughout Gerald’s battle with illness — organized a group of friends to drive Gerald back and forth to chemo treatments.

I spent a number of mornings with Gerald in this way, and grew to know his fearless honesty and courage during those trips together.

It sometimes took him a long time to walk the short distance from the front door of his building to the car, his body was so exhausted. And even longer to sit down and get buckled in, he was in so much pain. But once the pain subsided and he caught his breath again, the first words inevitably out of his mouth were: “Hi Mr. Sean. Now tell me how you and Tom are doing.”

I guess what I admired most about Gerald was his extraordinary creativity. He was truly a self-made, self-actualized and self-realized individual, a true Renaissance man.

Tom, his sister Diane, Sean, Gerald & Glen up at Sakinaw

Tom, his sister Diane, Sean, Gerald & Glen up at Sakinaw

He was an amazingly inventive artist in his own right, and one of the most knowledgable collectors we knew. He loved beauty and surrounded himself with it. Almost as much as he loved men, and he could wax as poetic about their beauty as his latest acquisition of art.

In the summer of 2000, Gerald and Glen spent a few days with Tom and me up at a cabin on Sakinaw Lake. After they’d gone I wrote a poem and I would like to share it with you today, dedicating it to Gerald’s memory. The poem is called “Summer Days”

Summer Days

There comes a point some summer days
When balance calms Time’s ebb and flow,
When quiet falls, and resplendent rays
make ripples, waves and rivulets glow.

Eyelids grow heavy in somnambulant shade,
And gentled winds die down in mute homage;
Day’s end preceding, Day’s light begins to fade,
Sun’s last embrace of it’s earthly paradisic Raj.

The lake grows still, looks back in sad farewell,
Narcissus’ loss too painful here to tell.

Gerald Obre was magnificent, larger than life, and we are right to mourn him, but I urge you to honor his memory by embracing the beauty of life for which every waking moment of his time on this earth was a joyous celebration!

When I think of Gerald, it is of him smiling, exuberant, feisty, surrounded by his friends, good-naturedly enduring our teasing about his latest enthusiasm.

And if just one or two of us could walk out into the sunshine when we leave here today resolved to demonstrate even a modicum of Gerald’s unbridled enthusiasm for life, for its flavor and texture and color and light and beauty, the world will be a better place. And perhaps in this small way, others too might come to know what it means to have someone as wonderful as Gerald Obre in their lives!


Gerald Obre was born on December 8, 1952 to William Applin and Alma Obre in Wells, BC, and raised in Vancouver, BC. He completed his Bachelor of Fine Arts at UBC. His love of fine cuisine led to a career in management in some of the country’s finest restaurants, and he finished his career as the demonstration chef at Whole Foods Caper’s store on Robson Street.

Gerald loved art, took many courses in jewelry-making, and he and his partner, Glen Hillson were sophisticated collectors of ceramics, glass and paintings. But his greatest passion was cooking.

He is survived by his brother Harold Applin and Harold’s wife Jeannie, nephews Ben (and Ben’s wife Stephanie) and Cody, and grand-nieces Ryanne and Addyson, and by many friends who loved him, not least of whom is Robert Strayer, who was closest to him and a crucial support to him throughout his illness.

It Takes A (Global) Village!

Times Square

Times Square

Visiting New York is like a shot of adrenalin! I spent half my adult life in that city. Half of that was spent working at Columbia Artists when it was at its peak, learning the business of managing artists and producing international concert tours for orchestras, dance companies and chamber groups from around the world.

When I go back, I find nearly every block of that city imbued with memories and reflections of some of the most defining experiences and people in my life.

The reason for my trip was to give a seminar on social media at this year’s Chamber Music America conference. I presented my “Top Ten Tips For Mastering The Twitterverse” to agents, artists and presenters I’ve long known and admired: Edna Landau, co-founder of IMG Artists and Jamie Broumas, Director of the Kennedy Center, among others. It was fun and I think it went over well. (Actually I know it did. 2 weeks later Jamie joined Twitter and sent me the following tweet: “Took your advice and came to the party!”)

Rebranding for Lincoln Center

Rebranding for Lincoln Center

I also took advantage of the trip to arrange meetings with the Artistic staff at Carnegie Hall and the 92nd Street Y; the Marketing and Brand director for Lincoln Center; and a fundraising expert for Cambridge University in America.

And many old friends: Mentors Doug Sheldon at Columbia Artists and Charlie Hamlen, co-founder of IMG Artists and founder of Classical Action Against AIDS, now VP of Artistic Planning for the Orchestra of St. Luke’s; Shirley Kirshbaum, Susan Catalano and Jason Belz from Kirshbaum-Demler Artists; Jenny Palmer from IMG Artists; Stephen Jacobson, my counterpart at Shriver Hall in Baltimore; Derrick Inouye, resident conductor at the Met Opera and James Levine’s right hand both there and at the Verbier Festival; David Lamarche, Music Director of American Ballet Theater; and Nikki Chooi, a brilliant young violinist from Victoria with a burgeoning career.

It reconfirmed for me the thousands of people around the world so crucial to the ecosystem that produces the great artists that appear on the Vancouver Recital Series every year: the teachers, music schools and great artists that mentor young talent; the foundations, competitions and festivals that give them a leg up; the agents that find and help develop careers; the publicists that help promote them; the critics that maintain standards and push artists to grow; the record labels, web developers, instrument makers and sponsors that are all necessary to that elusive magical alchemy that leads to a career.

New offices for Carnegie Hall

New offices for Carnegie Hall

And most important of all, people like Leila Getz, our Artistic Director, whose international connections, knowledge, artistic integrity and willingness to take risks are the key to the success of our series.

Ultimately the trip reminded me again of how much this business, like much of life itself, is based on relationships and reputation. It is still an industry where one’s word is literally one’s bond.

I’m overjoyed to get back home to my Tom, and to our great team at the Vancouver Recital Society. But it’s been quite a moving, emotional visit – so many joy-filled hellos followed too soon with emotional goodbyes.

And now it’s time for the last goodbye of all, to New York itself. They’ve just called my flight back to Vancouver!

Our First Annual Chrismakkuh Celebration Dinner!

Nelson Mandela with Queen Elizabeth II

Nelson Mandela with Queen Elizabeth II

A few weeks ago, staff and friends of the Vancouver Recital Society got together for our very first Annual Chrismakkuh Celebration Dinner!  We are a typically Canadian mix of Christians, Jews, Atheists, and (as I like to describe myself) a lapsed Buddhist, so we seized on The OC‘s Chrismakkuh as our kind of Holiday!

We gathered soon after Nelson Mandela died, and Leila Getz, our Artistic Director, had just found out her piano teacher in South Africa literally played host to Mandela for many of his organizing meetings. I say literally ‘played’ host, because whenever Mandela was in his house meeting others, Leila’s teacher would play the piano as loud as possible to thwart security forces from listening in.

Leila shared a number of stories that night from apartheid South Africa, and her own family’s near-brushes with the nation’s ubiquitous security services. It was amazing to learn at our little office party here in Vancouver all these years later that there was such a direct thread back to those historic times half a world away.

628x471Donald Gislason, our resident Musicologist, Archivist and videographer, then recalled the passing of another figure who loomed large on the world stage, Pope John Paul II. Donald was in Ravello at the time,  house-sitting for Gore Vidal, and felt compelled to journey immediately to Rome by train. He said the Termini Train station in Rome was overflowing with pilgrims traveling en masse from around the country to say one last farewell to their pope.

Donald stood in line all night outside the Vatican to pay his respects and to bear witness to the history of the moment, talking with others in line, and recalled how personal and traumatic the loss was for many Italians.

One guest was from Poland, and grew up under communist Soviet rule. She recalled being in Berlin with her husband the day the Berlin Wall came down, and the celebratory euphoria that gripped the entire city as that soul-crushing barrier was torn down.

Another guest talked about living in Ireland during The Troubles. Hearing these stories prompted me to talk about Tom’s and my own experience living in New York during the attacks on 9/11.

But out of such an unlikely aggregation of the world’s troubles – apartheid, Soviet repression, terrorism and war – came something quite beautiful. Our concatenated experiences of dramatic and turbulent world events had somehow led all of us here to Vancouver.

Everyone around that table had sought out this extraordinary city on the most peaceful – literally ‘pacific’ – of shores. And the common thread linking all of us is our mutual love of music.

City of Vancouver

City of Vancouver

So in the end, what that dinner inspired in me was a renewed reverence for everything we take too easily here for granted. Vancouver is a miraculous creation, an oasis in the world, a global meeting place, a sanctuary for many,  a respite from the calamities and woes besetting other parts of the globe.

That, and a vivid illustration of the power of music to heal, to bring people together, to rescue and inspire us, literally to move us!

All of which seems a particularly fitting way both to celebrate and bring to a close this tale of the Vancouver Recital Society‘s very first Annual Chrismakkuh Celebration Dinner!

I wish everyone reading this a joy-filled New Year filled with less ‘interesting’ but equally inspiring times!

Is There A Violin In The House?

Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang and pianist Michail Lifits delivered an impassioned, stunningly beautiful recital of Mendelssohn, Fauré, Mozart and Prokofiev at the Vancouver Playhouse on Sunday afternoon for the Vancouver Recital Society

Audiences were mesmerized by the lyric Mendelssohn that opened the program and the lush Fauré that closed the first half, with many patrons in the audience saying they were transported to another world by the beauty of their playing, myself included.

A divine, one-movement Mozart sonata followed the intermission, and then a rousing, powerful Prokofiev that nearly brought the house down, until a broken E-string brought the concert to a crashing halt at the very climax of the piece. A visibly upset Vilde left the stage to replace the broken string, only to find the replacement string in her case was defective.

There is a magic to live performance, the seamlessness perfection great artists create that sometimes only reveals itself when something goes wrong. We all know what to expect in a concert – the performance, the clapping, the intermission, an encore if we’re lucky … but what happens when it all goes awry?

Desperate, I emerged from backstage to ask the audience: “Is there a violin in the house?” Amazingly there was! John Lyon (pictured here with Vilde), a PhD student and fiddler in a bluegrass band had his violin with him, and I rushed it back to Vilde.

John Lyon and his wonderful violin with Vilde Frang

John Lyon and his wonderful violin with Vilde Frang

While Vilde tuned the instrument backstage, I came back onstage to buy her some time by telling the audience the only story I know about  a broken string:

A well-known string quartet (I don’t want to say which) was just starting to play a concert in a very small village in Ireland when a cello string broke. The cellist immediately rushed off to get a replacement string from his cello case while the other three musicians waited on stage.

After an unusually long time had passed and he didn’t return, the violist went off to find him. But he too didn’t return and the audience was getting a bit restless, so the second violinist went off to hurry his colleagues along. When he, too, didn’t return, the first violinist somewhat sheepishly asked the audience for their patience while he got it all straightened out, and went off to find the others.

Unknown-1But when he found them backstage, they had broken down into a fit of giggles because the cellist didn’t have a replacement string and there was no way to complete the concert. Unable to face the audience, they slipped out into the night as quietly as they could and drove off.

Thankfully our concert had a much happier ending! Vilde and Michail came back onstage to play a divine Heifetz transcription as an encore (Estrellita by Ponce) on the borrowed student’s violin, and the audience rose to their feet as one to cheer her outstanding sang froid! It was definitely one for the record books!