The Pragmatic Optimist: VSO President Kelly Tweeddale

Kelly Tweeddale is committed to experimenting with repertoire and concert format so that VSO can remain “vibrant and relevant.” | Chris Loh for the VSO

Kelly Tweeddale is committed to experimenting with repertoire and concert format so that VSO can remain “vibrant and relevant.” | Chris Loh for the VSO

It seems like only recently that Kelly Tweeddale became president of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. But it’s already been three action-packed years since Tweeddale moved from Seattle, where she made plenty of waves as executive director of Seattle Opera, to spearhead the VSO. After the recent launch of the orchestra’s 100th Anniversary Season, Tweeddale managed to take some time to tell us about her excitement for VSO’s future, her passion for live music, and what she appreciates about Vancouver, including its food scene, bike lanes and great spaces. 

What particular qualities do you bring to the position of president of the VSO? I’m a calculated risk-taker. I live for virtuosic moments both big or small, so whether it’s unjamming the copier or experiencing a memorable moment in live performance, I love that moment of mastery. Some would call me a pragmatic optimist. 

You came to VSO in 2015 after 13 years directing Seattle Opera. What is most similar and the most different about running these two organizations? At an opera company, by the nature of the genre you are collaborative. With an orchestra, the historical model is based on a hierarchy that starts with the conductor and permeates through the ensemble through principal players. Those are very different models. What is refreshing about the VSO, is that the organization and orchestra have a sense of collective purpose and an entrepreneurial spirit that is both collaborative and interactive. I’ve felt that from my very first visit and over the three years it has become even stronger.

Seattle Opera was known as an adventurous company. It embraced risk. What is the biggest risk you’ve taken or plan to take at VSO? The biggest risk so far was finding a suitable successor to Maestro Bramwell Tovey who has been such an integral part of the VSO. An orchestra thrives based on the artistic leadership, and there have been many notable failures, so the stakes felt very high. I’ve had the privilege of working with our new music director Otto Tausk for over a year, and I can say I have never been more excited about the VSO’s future.

Yo Yo Ma Masterclass with the VSO School of Music. | Aaron Aubrey for the VSO

Yo Yo Ma Masterclass with the VSO School of Music. | Aaron Aubrey for the VSO

You joined VSO when it was also looking for a new concertmaster and a leader for the VSO School of Music. What unique opportunities or challenges did this present?  Whenever you join an organization that has a long history as the VSO, you need to take time to merge into its lane even though you are eager to get to the super highway. I took my first year perfecting the “zipper method” merge (not easy for one who likes speed and always has the final destination in mind). I had to figure out where to accelerate and where to tap the brakes. We were fortunate that the best concertmaster for the VSO was already familiar to us. Nicholas Wright was our assistant concertmaster and with our search, Nick outplayed all other candidates. We have the best of both worlds, familiarity with the orchestra and a wonderful artistic leader adept in his new role. 

When I was hired, I was the only integrated staff member between the VSO and the VSO School of Music. It was my dream to combine the VSO’s education activities with the School’s learning mandate. We were able to do that by attracting one of Canada’s finest arts educators to join our team. Angela Elster shared the VSO’s entrepreneurial vision with the resume to deliver the results. Seizing the opportunity has allowed the VSO to be a leader in our field by investing in both the pipeline for audience and musicians and in musical mastery at the highest level. Overall getting the right management team for this particular time in our history has been a combination of those two elements – leaders with new ideas and skills combined with proven tenured experience. 

How can the Orchestra balance the preferences of patrons who enjoy the traditional concert experience with the need to bring in new audiences? We like to say that the VSO is the ultimate shape-shifter. Music is a conduit, a universal language. Depending on the notes on the page, the venue we play in, and/or the people we perform with, we appeal to a different audience, culture, and/or generation. The VSO does 150 concerts each year and we are committed to experimenting both with the repertoire, concert format and content to remain vibrant and relevant. With that said, we need to be very aware of why we do what we do. Using the analogy, don’t invite someone to a buffet if they are expected a five-course dining experience and vice versa. Today’s VSO needs to be agile, adaptable, and curious without turning its back on the really great music written for a symphony.

This year, VSO hosted the free “Symphony @ Sunset” concert in English Bay. Did this ambitious project meet your expectations? This project exceeded my expectations in all accounts. I remember having the conversation with the Vancouver Park Board almost three years ago and the obstacles outnumbered the one great idea. But this is what I’ve learned over the years: if the idea is big enough and the partnership is strong enough, there is nothing that can stop a determined soul. That, and we had a bit of luck with a gorgeous summer day in Vancouver that brought out over 14,000 music-lovers. I think that says it all.

More than 14,000 attended VSO’s inaugural free concert at Sunset Beach in July 2018. “The music enhances the place and the place enhances the music,” says Tweeddale. | Ronald Knapp

More than 14,000 attended VSO’s inaugural free concert at Sunset Beach in July 2018. “The music enhances the place and the place enhances the music,” says Tweeddale. | Ronald Knapp

The Sunset program included greatest hits, yet it was preceded by a student program. Was this a risky feature? This was a very intentional part of our plan. The VSO School of Music is an integral part of music in this city, teaching classes in classical instruments, jazz, vocal arts, world music and early learning. Giving emerging talent a stage as well as featuring our extremely talented faculty is part of the pluralism that drives the VSO forward. It is nurturing the pipeline as well as championing the masters. I know the talent we help develop in our school, and for me that was a risk-free venture to put them on the same stage as the VSO.

This summer, members of the VSO performed on Sunday’s at VanDusen Garden. Is it all about audience engagement? The opportunity to perform at VanDusen was partly audience engagement, but also deeply embedded in the work I’ve done throughout my career in understanding the power of placemaking. Any experience has the opportunity to gain resonance and meaning or to fall flat depending on how it integrates with the place where it happens.  Great chamber music and the beauty of the gardens was a natural. Just as the VSO performing at Whistler on Canada Day weekend. The music enhances the place and the place enhances the music.  

What are you most looking forward to during VSO’s 100th Anniversary season? I’m looking forward to our January 26 concert “Day of Music,” where the VSO will curate its own performances as well as invite our musical friends in the community to provide a gift back to our community with free performances in the Orpheum, VSO School of Music, and the Annex. I’ve done this in two other cities, and it has been the most heartwarming experience and we can’t wait to say thank you. So mark your calendar, from 10 am to 10 pm, it’s music all day, and it’s free! 

You’ve said you spent quality time with Bramwell Tovey “picking his brain” before his departure. What is one of the most important things you learned? I was fortunate to experience the level of dedication and commitment Maestro Tovey has for this orchestra and this community. There are few music directors of orchestras that have immersed themselves in their community as deeply as Bramwell has. He had a great partnership with my predecessor Jeff Alexander and it served both the community and the orchestra well. I think about that a lot as Maestro Otto Tausk and I take up this next chapter.

Since arriving in Vancouver, what have you found to be the most attractive and endearing aspects of our city? I love the fact that I can walk/run/bike almost anywhere. I have a hybrid car, but I often go weeks without driving. I also love that it is a food town. My husband is a culinary instructor, so having fresh ingredients, interesting restaurants, and variety is a must. Vancouver delivers all that and more.

Which BC organization(s) do you most admire? There are so many. Outside all of the cultural and live performing organizations, I think the work that the YWCA does is terrific, the tireless work of Covenant House is admirable, and I recently attending a self-empowerment/safety workshop for women put on by the VPD Foundation. The female police officers that did the training were fierce, funny, and formidable in advocating for a connected and safe community. 

Vancouver School of Music Showcase. “Giving emerging talent a stage as well as featuring our extremely talented faculty is part of the pluralism that drives the VSO forward. It is nurturing the pipeline as well as championing the masters.” | Aaron Aubrey for the VSO

Vancouver School of Music Showcase. “Giving emerging talent a stage as well as featuring our extremely talented faculty is part of the pluralism that drives the VSO forward. It is nurturing the pipeline as well as championing the masters.” | Aaron Aubrey for the VSO

What do you like to do outside of working for the VSO? I am a runner, so the seawall is one of my favourite places. I also bike, so yes, I love those bike lanes. With a busy schedule, I’ve taken up yoga and my colleagues are happy as it slows my quick pace down a bit.  I also love to write and read – poetry, fiction, memoir, great biographies.

What types of music do you enjoy listening to?  All of it. I am an omnivore and I’m fickle. I like whatever it is I’m listening to. At that moment it’s my favourite and I’m all in.

Three words to describe yourself. Creative. Intense. Purposeful.

Biggest issue facing BC’s arts and culture community? Apathy.

In terms of project management, you also once said, don’t be afraid to put your biggest fears and your biggest hopes on the table at the same time. After three years with the VSO what are they at this moment? My biggest fear is that “mediocrity” will replace “mastery” in our society and as citizens we will no longer have the necessary skills to tell the difference. My biggest hope is that live music, and in the VSO’s case, live orchestral music, will have continue to have the power to transcend that confusion and provide meaning and connection. More succinctly: Less rhetoric and more music. 

What’s your opinion of the VSO’s reputation as far as international prestige goes? I think the VSO has been a Canadian ambassador on many levels. International prestige is hard to measure at the moment as the overall skill level of all orchestras is higher than it’s ever been, and our world feels much smaller through the ability to experience music through digital streams. I think there is an opportunity to be different by positioning the orchestra as a place where the world’s most talented musicians want to come to try something new, take a chance, reinvent what it means to be a modern orchestra that plays to a diverse community. We have all the ingredients to do great thing in that space, especially with the VSO School of Music as our integrated partner.

What are you looking forward to most in working with Otto Tausk? I’m looking forward to his curiosity – he asks the best questions! I’m also looking forward to his eagerness to work with the ensemble, and the entire organization. His focus on clarity with meaning, and connectivity between musicians and audiences inspires me.

In your first year, the VSO set an all time record for ticket sales! To what do you attribute this? I have to say partially luck, great programming that was determined long before I joined, and the introduction of the Harry Potter In Concert series. We were opportunistic, and it paid off.

How is VSO embracing technology to enhance the concert experience or to engage audiences? The VSO has had a history of implementing technology early in both the concert experience and running of the back office. We were early adopters of visual technology in the hall and recently worked in partnership with the City of Vancouver to install high definition projectors and screens in the Orpheum to support our growing multi-media and film concerts. We are currently one of the only orchestras to have negotiated an electronic media guarantee with our musicians and we are looking at how to begin extending the concert experience through live streaming and other digital content. 

What most appeals to you about the work you do? Having the opportunity to see great art develop from idea to concert.  I love sitting in the concert hall and hearing a great performance and remembering all the serendipities that helped make that ephemeral moment happen. 

Favourite thing to do for people? I love to introduce someone to an artist or a piece of music that they think they don’t like or don’t know. The transformation that happens when given a little bit of context with the live experience is magic.

If you could meet any historical figure, who would it be? That’s a hard one as I am certainly a woman of the present. Although it would be really fun to meet Coco Chanel. She was both a troublemaker and a maverick. And she dressed pretty well, too.

If you could have any superpower what would it be? Invisibility! Never underestimate the power of hearing what people have to say when they think nobody is listening.

Most memorable performance or work of art you’ve experienced? I’ve had so many and I try to keep in the present moment. I’ve help produce 12 Ring cycles (that’s like the Olympics of Opera totaling to almost 200 hours of performances) and every cycle was unique, memorable, and immersive. I’ve opened three concert halls to communities that had the vision that they could have a place that became the gathering place for all types of music. The transformation that occurred in the city, the citizenry, and the various organizations were memorialized in each case in a concert for the construction workers who helped renovate the hall or build new. I often think about how proud and moved they were to be part of such a legacy and how the first notes to be played, in each case, brought each one of us to tears.

Proudest achievement? Raising my daughter to be an art-loving, music-loving, independent adult.

What is the quality you most like in a person? Curiosity, with a great sense of humour.

What does a perfect day look like? Any day that that the sun is shining, the house is sold-out, and the musicians are happy.

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