A Potemkin Olympics?

Artwork by Jesse Corcoran

UPDATE 1/2/10:  (Revised)

NEWS UPDATE ADDED 12/21/09 2:01 pm

I’m pleased to report that VANOC has issued a formal apology to Maestro Bramwell Tovey and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra for “putting it in an ‘untenable’ position” according to today’s report from The Globe and Mail by David Ebner.

Nonetheless, it remains deeply troubling that our own grammy-award winning orchestra and internationally celebrated Music Director Bramwell Tovey will not be featured during the Opening Ceremonies seen around the world.

We were told the Olympics would showcase our city and province to the entire planet. So why are they missing this opportunity to showcase one of our greatest cultural crown jewels, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra?

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(POSTSCRIPT ADDED BELOW ON 12/21/09 11:01 AM)

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ORIGINAL ARTICLE 12/19/09

Today The Globe and Mail published an article by Marsha Lederman and Rod Mickleburgh entitled The Day The Music Died, which begins:

As the Winter Olympics near, the Games are being hit by defections from the opening and closing ceremonies.

The Grammy-winning Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and its celebrated conductor Bramwell Tovey walked away from the opening ceremonies this week after being asked to prerecord music that would then be mimed by others during the live, lavish spectacle. Yesterday, Mr. Tovey called the plan fraudulent, likening it to Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson’s “faux gold medal” at the 1988 Summer Olympics. Mr. Johnson was stripped of his medal when he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. “In our field, for you to plagiarize somebody else’s recording – to mime it and pretend that it’s you – is absolutely on a par with Ben Johnson’s fraud. … It’s non-Olympian in spirit and VANOC really should have known better.”

Mr. Tovey, meanwhile, said VANOC’s plan to have an orchestral segment mimed during the opening ceremonies reminded him of the furor over lip-synching by a young girl at the 2008 Summer Olympics. “I said ‘no’ to VANOC, because I felt it was dishonest. I thought it was fraudulent. It’s promoted with public money, and I didn’t want anything to do with this kind of dishonest practice.” After the Beijing lip-synching controversy, B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell vowed there would be no lip-synching during Vancouver’s opening ceremonies.

But that was then. Now we learn that instead of setting a new low, the 2008 Olympics set a new Olympic standard for muzzling dissent and the Milli Vanilli-style faux-performance embraced by those producing Vancouver’s opening ceremonies.

While common among rock promoters, this request for models and actors to substitute for great artists in front of the cameras is distasteful in the extreme when applied to our grammy-award winning orchestra and its brilliant Music Director. Maestro Tovey is a great artist regularly asked by the New York Philharmonic – one of the greatest orchestras in the world – to conduct their iconic concerts in Central Park and asked by the LA Philharmonic to conduct their celebrated concerts in world-famous Hollywood Bowl. They certainly want him out front. And the greatest soloists in the world regularly come to Vancouver to perform with Maestro Tovey and our VSO.

Worse for me, the Olympic producers have muzzled our very own Vancouver Youth Symphony Orchestra and forbidden them by contract from talking about the fact that mimers and mummers will perform on stage alongside them during their performance. These are our city’s most gifted young musicians, full of idealism and dedication. They rehearse for months on end and play their heart out every time they are offered the opportunity to perform.

Their muzzling, and forced miming alongside ringers is so terribly cynical I’m seriously concerned about the sad lesson they’ll be learning on that stage. What are we teaching them? What are the Olympic values they will learn on that stage?

I’m embarrassed for our city that this generic, faux-celebration is being substituted in place of a celebration of everything that makes us great and authentically different from every other place on this earth.

And I am deeply disappointed with VANOC that they would foist such a sham on our youngest, most gifted talents while allowing our greatest, internationally-recognized artists to be treated with such disrespect.

Perhaps it is time to find a permanent home for what the IOC is becoming. If these latest revelations are any indication of the values of the organizers, following on the extra-legal harrassment of citizens peacefully petitioning their own government, I can suggest a number of places they might feel right at home.

Those responsible owe Maestro Tovey, the Grammy-winning Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, the conductor and musicians of the Vancouver Youth Orchestra and all other participants in their Potemkin Opening Ceremonies an apology.

Shame on VANOC and shame on the IOC.

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UPDATE I  (Dec 21, 2009

I feel compelled to add to this post that I am not at all reflexively anti-Olympics. To the contrary, the Olympics was one of the things we were greatly looking forward to on moving home to Vancouver. We have an Olympics license plate on our car, I have worn Olympic lapel pins to demonstrate support, served on an Olympic Legacies Now jury, and helped arrange and attend many meetings to try and anticipate problems and arrange smooth community relations.

So I find myself in the same column as the gentleman referred to in the article who was once so enthusiastic and now finds himself withdrawing from the opening ceremonies and dropping out of the parade, so to speak. So, I wanted to make clear that I speak from bitter disappointment that these things have not been better handled, not from an anti-Olympics stance.

As Tom keeps reminding me, all the world’s nations gathered together and competing peacefully is a wonderful tradition and one we would all like to enthusiastically support.

But not at any price.

3 thoughts on “A Potemkin Olympics?

  1. Sean, I applaud your article and I agree that an apology ought to be forthcoming.
    The apology to my thinking should address the complete lack of respect for the individual artists of all ages in these two cornerstone music organizations of Vancouver.
    What kind of standards and bench marks are being set by the Executive Producer, of the Olympic Opening/Closing Ceremonies, (as the final decision maker), where “legal considerations” take precedence over the artistry of live music?
    Is this the example that should and “must be” for our younger generation of musicians to follow?
    Is this why we push for live music in the schools as a basic part of the education curriculum?
    If the Executive Producer decision(s) to “pre-record and mime music” all comes down to legal, logistical and financial manipulation, then, why do it at all?
    The millions of dollars that go into the producing of Olympic Opening/Closing Ceremonies could easily fund many, many, many, long term live music programs in our schools. After all to read a music score, or orchestra part in an orchestra, you need to know how to “count” bars, basic math, no?
    Let me see, Gustavo Dudamel and the El Sistema voluntary orchestral music project has a huge impact and following all over the world; and, the last time I checked it was “live”, – nobody is “muzzling’ their freedom of expression!
    Bravo Maestro Tovey for saying “NO”.

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