Pierre Simard is used to performing for large audiences, but in his mind, he’s trying to touch the heart of perhaps just a single person in that audience.
When artistic director Pierre Simard takes the stage to mark the beginning of the Vancouver Island Symphony’s (VIS) 25th Anniversary season, his razor-sharp focus won’t be just on the music, but on the emotions of the individual audience members.
“We might be entertaining 750 people, and for that 751st person, you may change their life,” he explains.
That was his own experience when he was 10 or 11, and he attended Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker performed by the Montreal Symphony. In that moment, his life was transformed forever. After, he would go into the record shop and hide the fact he was buying classical music, as he didn’t want to be discovered by his blues-and-pop-loving childhood friends.
“Music belongs to everyone. Some pieces just go straight to your heart,” Simard adds.
Simard has learned, however, that putting together a program straight from his own heart may not be a recipe for success with VIS, which is why its 25th season only includes a few selections of what he would have picked for his dream concert series.
That, he explains, is a good thing.
“When I first started with the Symphony, I would program seasons it like a Pierre Simard wish list with limited success. One of the concerts featured only difficult repertoire for the musicians and for the audience, and it stretched people’s minds to experience music they had not heard…This year is much more about the famous music of the orchestra repertoire, celebrating and connecting with the audience,” he explains.
“The November 16 concert, for example, is all about destressing and rejuvenating, because this is a time of year when so many people feel stressed out. It’s this celebration of string instruments featuring the beautiful Lyra Angelica performed VIS Principal Harpist Lani Krantz. In January we’re featuring an evening of waltzes and polkas as a celebration of the new year, because we have had several requests from our community for this kind of evening, and we have our big 25th anniversary celebration in February, in which I chose to feature the Oboe, which is my instrument. It will be very upbeat, and will feature Prokofiev, Haydn and Copland, with pieces playing off the number ‘25.’ The nice thing is that the music was chosen by our own VIS musicians.
“Now that I have more experience with the Symphony, I always work towards a wish list of all orchestra stakeholders.”
Anyone who has listened to musicians perform music that they love, understands the palpable difference to the ear when the performers’ individual energy is infused into that work. Simard says his approach is very much a collaboration between himself and the musicians.
“I often value the musicians more than the music, which is not typical of conductors. Musicians bring their own life and their own joys, sorrows and passions to what they are playing. That’s what makes the performance contemporary and relevant.”
A more casual approach to experiencing the music also gives VIS a contemporary edge. Performing, and listening to music that is 200 or 300 years old may not sound like a modern pastime, but Simard notes that the whole approach to planning and playing the season has been modernized.
“I am part of the newer generation of conductors, in what used to be a very aristocratic and autocratic art, where that approach worked from the 50s through to the 70s. That began to change in the 90s (when Simard began his career). Before you were ‘up there’ as a conductor; now you need to be part of the community of music-makers and music-receivers.”
And that communities’ wish list is top of mind when VIS put together its 25th Anniversary season, beginning with a bold opening concert on October 19, of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony – a voyage from darkness to light, with the return of pianist Michael Kim, for the third time, and former Composer in Residence Jason Nett as the guests of honour.
The season is designed to be casual and more easily accessible for everyone, which is not to say that there aren’t some moments to challenge and even shock and shake up the audience.
Shock can be a good thing,” Simard says. “I learned that first hand when I moved here full time two years ago with my family.”
Simard says moving to Nanaimo from Rosemère (just outside Montreal) was a culture shock – but in a good way. His children (he has two girls and a boy) for example, will be fully bilingual, something that may not have happened if they had stayed in Quebec. He was also shocked in a very good way by the abundant nature on the island, which he says he has embraced.
“One real winner has been my son, Antonin. He lived through some hard times in school back in Montreal. Here he is blooming. I feel the orchestra has continued to bloom as well…I am so proud of the level of this orchestra, and also because the audience feels like it belongs to them.”
In fact, it does belong to the audience and to the Island community. In a world of competition from YouTube and other sources of musical performances the internet, maintaining an orchestra for 25 years in our community is a tremendous accomplishment.
Whether it is a Christmas performance, or a bold new repertoire, Simard understands the power that connecting to music has with the entire audience, or with that one person whose life will be impacted forever. It’s also important to Simard that that he remains out of the way of the music.
“I used to be so hard on myself and had a hard time forgiving the tiniest mistakes. The orchestra taught me to ease up on Everest-hike standards, and so did my wife. I take my work seriously, but I’m not performing heart surgery.”
Not unless you count reaching into the heart of that 751st person in the Vancouver Island Symphony’s audience.