Vancouver’s bold but shaky INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL
1958: critical applause, box-office failure 1959: louder critical applause, box-office failure 1960: bigger stars, slicker productions and faith— if the box office doesn’t pick up, Vancouver’s third festival will be its last
THE MOST LAVISH but shakiest spectacle in North American show business, the Vancouver International Festival, faces its crucial test this summer. In its third season, the festival must pack ’em in or pack it up.
In 1958, Vancouver set out to crash the big leagues of world culture by attempting to mount an annual international festival of the arts that would rival those of Edinburgh and Salzburg and surpass, at least in scope, the yearly Shakespearean spree at Stratford, Ont.
In two years of trying, Nicholas Goldschmidt, founder and impresario of the Vancouver show, has produced two festivals of spectacular size and variety and of considerable, if uneven, artistic quality.
But, so far, the people of Vancouver have not shown they arc ready to buy culture by the carload lot. In its inaugural season, the festival lost $ 150,000—more than was anticipated but not a disastrous loss. Then, last summer, it took an even stiiïer jolt at the box office and lost two hundred thousand dollars. This almost wiped out the Vancouver Festival Society, which runs the show.
The society, a non-profit organization, expects the
festival will always lose money, but it could not survive another loss as big as last season's.
To meet the challenge, Goldschmidt has fashioned a program that promises to be the most spectacular yet. It will also be the cheapest of the three to produce.
For three and a half weeks, from July 22 to August 16, he’ll bury the town under an avalanche of the world's finest long-hair and crew-cut entertainment. In all. six hundred performers from six countries—musicians, singers, dancers, actors, and even acrobats — will take part.
To top the bill Goldschmidt has booked two sure-fire international show-stoppers: the Peking Opera, which caused a sensation when it made its first western appearance in Paris in 1955, and the brilliant Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
For a time, Goldschmidt had a third big attraction booked: Jerome Robbins’ Ballets: U. S. A., a modern dance ensemble which made a sixteen-month tour of Europe last fall without playing to a single empty seat. But suddenly Robbins telephoned that his ballet couldn't keep the engagement.
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‘'T hree of my best dancers.” he explained "are pregnant."
It was a hard blow hut Goldschmidt reacted calmly as he almost always does.
It's an act of God." he said, "so what can 1 do but accept it?"
The Peking Opera and the New York Philharmonic are only the headline acts of a show that will cover almost the entire field of the performing arts, from a production of Puccini's opera. Madame Butterfly, to folk singing by the Kingston T rio, the United States college boys who shot to fame with their recording of the song Tom Dooley.
Even the festival's setting will be superb. for most of its major events are to unfold on the stage of the new six-million-dollar. civic-owned Queen Elizabeth Theatre, described by Sir I bomas Beecham. the great English conductor, as "not the best concert hall in the world, but one of the best."
As a curtain-raiser to the big show, an international film festival will open on July I I and run for twelve days.
Everyone else may wonder if Vancouver, the pretty but primitive belle of the west, is ready to support such a lofty undertaking, but the festival's impresario won't admit to a single doubt.
"How can we lose?”
In fact. Goldschmidt, a Europeantrained musician who looks something like a tall and upright version of
G roncho Marx, won't even acknowledge that this is a critical year for the festival.
"Nonsense!” he snorts. "T his is not a do-or-die year. Not at all. This is the year we do. We have two festivals behind us and we have learned from them. Now we have the exact formula for success. The festival is here to stay."
Goldschmidt produces figures to show why he's so confident his I960 extra-
vaganza can't miss. T he key. of course, is that the festival does not have to make money to survive; it simply has to hold its loss this year to $1 I ().()()().
This deficit would be met from a $ 150,000-fund the society expects to raise this year — much of it even before the first curtain goes up—to cover losses and have some left for off-season operation. The Canada Council and the city of
Vancouver have already given $35,000 each and a $35.000 grant is being sought from the British Columbia government. The rest will come from private donations.
Although the I960 program appears to have far stronger box-office appeal than those of the past two years, the budget can he met even if the festival draws fewer people than the one hundred thousand who attended in 1958 or the
114.000 who came in 1959. T his year it can get by with only 83.000 customers because production costs have been slashed to $363,000. compared to $471,000 in 1958 and $532.000 in 1959.
While it is true the festival would meet its budget and survive for another year if it drew a total audience of 83.000, it would hardly be considered a roaring success. But Goldschmidt is actually counting on drawing far more people than that.
"With the Peking Opera and the New
York Philharmonic how can we lose?” he asks.
“The New York Philharmonic!" exclaims Goldschmidt. “One calls it—how is it?—ah. yes: the hottest thing in show business today.”
The man who has made it so is Leonard Bernstein, the orchestra’s dynamic. acrobatic and versatile maestro who excels not only as a conductor but as composer, pianist and lecturer as well. The forty-one-year-old Bernstein, who leaps, stomps, and thrashes as he leads his musicians, is one of the world’s mostsought-after conductors.
Last year he took the philharmonic on a tour of seventeen European countries and led it from triumph to triumph. As he walked off stage in Athens, a woman exclaimed, "A new' god has come to Athens!" In Moscow, after hearing Bernstein’s rendition of Shostakovitch’s Fifth Symphony, the famous Soviet composer Dmitri Kabalevsky said. "Never have 1 heard a better interpretation."
But it is his brilliant, unorthodox commentaries on classical music on television that have made Bernstein the hottest man in canned culture and which Goldschmidt confidently expects will make Vancouverites rush out to see him in the flesh.
Even so. Goldschmidt considers his supreme coup was in arranging, after three years of negotiations, for the North American debut of the Peking Opera, a centuries-old company that now comprises ninety singers, musicians, actors and acrobats. It will give five performances in the Queen Elizabeth.
It’s acrobatic “opera”
The Peking Opera, China's foremost theatrical company, made its first impact on western audiences in 1955 when it appeared at the International Festival of Dramatic Art in Paris. Every performance evoked a standing ovation. One ended in thirty encores.
“1 have sheaves of reviews that are simply ecstatic," says Goldschmidt. "Of course it isn't opera in the western sense of the word. It is, with its flashing acrobatics and its pantomime, what you might call Peking Music Hall."
There are two aspects of the Peking Opera that delight Goldschmidt. One is that the festival will have to pay only for its performances as the Chinese government will meet the cost of transporting the company to Vancouver. The other is that the Peking Opera comes with builtin box-office appeal for Vancouver's Chinese community, with a population estimated as high as fourteen thousand. Although the company will not appear in Vancouver until August, in early February the festival office began to receive ticket requests from Chinese-Canadians and even from Chinese in Brooklyn and Honolulu.
Vancouver asks, "Can we keep our festival?" but elsewhere people wonder how Vancouver got into the festival business in the first place. The answer is: mainly because Nicholas Goldschmidt talked the city into it. And who is Goldsch midt?
He was born fifty-two years ago on his father's thirty-thousand-acre estate in South Moravia, now part of Czechoslovakia. His musical training began in Vienna under the famous composer Joseph Marx and continued with various provincial opera companies until he became a conductor.
In 1937 he went to the United States and spent ten years there, duting which he founded opera schools at Stanford and Columbia universities. Then, in 1946, he came to Canada and for eleven
“impressive,” said the New York Times. But thers caine a hot debate: “Why did the festival flop?”
years was musical director of the opera school of Toronto’s Royal Conservatory.
In 1950, Goldschmidt began coming to Vancouver for several months each year to teach at the University of British Columbia, where a lively summer festival of the arts had begun to develop. "I began to wonder: why can't we have a really big festival like those in Europe?” he recalls.
Leaders of the Community Arts Council had had the festival bug since 1948, and when Goldschmidt appeared on the scene he sold them on his grand conception and got action.
The Vancouver Festival Society was formed early in 1955 and Goldschmidt was appointed artistic and managing director. An inaugural festival was put in the works for 1958 to coincide with the province’s centennial celebrations. The money to stage it was raised mainly by donations from industry. The Canada Council contributed a fifty-thousanddollar grant.
One of the first artists Goldschmidt booked was a kindly and brilliant old man who might be called the father of festivals. This was Bruno Walter, the great German conductor, who helped found Salzburg’s annual salute to Mozart and who took part in the opening performance of the first Edinburgh Festival.
Walter, then eighty-two and living in virtual retirement in California, accepted the engagement because, he said, “The world is torn to pieces by politics and it can be brought together only by culture.” In Vancouver, he said: “You have the ideal frame and setting for an international festival and such variety and scope in presentation I have rarely encountered.”
“I knew then,” says Goldschmidt, “that we were in business.”
Goldschmidt laid it on with a trowel, presenting a four-week jamboree of everything from jazz to opera, to mime by Marcel Marceau, the French master, to a wild and noisy epic drama that To-
ronto’s Lister Sinclair had been specially commissioned to write.
A lively controversy broke around Sinclair’s play, The World of the Wonderful Dark, which was set among coastal Indian tribes before the coming of the white man. Under the fire of professional critics, Sinclair's Indians bit the dust.
Surveying the whole undertaking, Arthur Goldberg, music critic of the Los Angeles Times, wrote: “Vancouver has entered the sharply competitive festival business in the grand manner, even, one might say, with a splash.
“In scope and content, the first season can be compared with such an established enterprise as Edinburgh,” he said. "The artistic aspirations are equally high and the standards are decidedly meri torious.”
Encouraged, Goldschmidt began assembling an even more ambitious program for 1959, extending the run of the festival from four to five weeks and the number of performances from fifty-nine to eighty. It proved to be far more ambitious than the traffic would bear.
Apart from four of the eight symphony concerts, the only solid box-office successes were scored by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip and by folk singer Harry Belafonte. The royal couple drew a sell-out house of 2.800 at a gala con cert in their honor during which the Queen gave her name to the city’s neu theatre. Belafonte played to the biggest crowd of all: six thousand people who packed the Forum hockey rink.
Howard Taubman, the New York Times music critic, described the whole festival as “impressive” and “alive and bursting with energy.”
Yet, when the final curtain fell, the festival was more dead than alive; it lay in the wings, gushing red ink.
Why did it flop?
The question was debated furiously for weeks and, in the end, an almost unanimous verdict emerged: admission prices had been too high and the artistic
standards too high-brow; there had been too many events and they had been spread over too long a period.
To revive the festival, generous transfusions of public money were pumped into it. The Canada Council and City of Vancouver had each given $25.000 to put the show on the boards, and now they matched these original grants to keep it there. The province, already down for $25.000. contributed another $13.900.
A postman's wife made her own modest contribution, a fiftecn-dollar donation. because, she wrote. "Summer in Vancouver has taken on a whole new joy! Mow can we leave for holidays when such exciting things are happening right at home?"
These contributions wiped out the society's huge debt and left it free to begin raising $150.000 to finance the 1900 festival.
"Were confident," says Peter Bennett, the festival's administrative director, "that if we produce a really worthwhile festival this summer, we can count on raising $150.000 every year to support it."
Goldschmidt has cut the festival’s run to three and a half weeks, although he'll still crowd in about sixty performances, roughly the same number as in 195$. He has cut prices as well. I here will be rush scats, at a dollar a throw, to most events, and cut - rate package deals are being oil ered.
Swedes and Bolivians, too
But the real key to survival is a program that will carry a box-office wallop and yet won't damage the high artistic standards Goldschmidt insists the festival must set. He is sure this is the kind of program he’s fashioned.
It will include symphony concerts conducted by Carlos Chavez. Mexico's most distinguished maestro, and by William Steinberg, of the Pittsburgh Symphony; recitals by Toronto’s brilliant pianist. Glenn Gould; the famous Swedish mezzo-soprano. Kerstin Meyer, and Jaime Laredo, an international-prize-winning violinist from Bolivia. I here will be chamber music performed by the Claremont Quartet, of New York, and Vancouver's Cassenti Players.
Even Mark Twain will get into the act when Hal Holbrook, a young American actor, presents Mark Twain Tonight, a smash hit in New York. Holbrook impersonates the great humorist reading from his own works.
The festival will be given a stronger Canadian and even local accent. Goldschmidt will conduct an all - Canadian cast, headed by the Toronto soprano Teresa Stratas, in Madame Butterfly. Seventy Vancouver children will take part in a production of Benjamin Brittens musical setting of the medieval miracle play. Noah's Flood.
The Deadly Game, described by the New York l imes' Brook Atkinson, as "a provocative philosophical inquiry into evil in the world," will be staged by the Vancouver actress and director Dorothy Davies and acted by a locad cast. I he Deadly Game recently folded alter a brief run in New York but Goldschmidt insists this has not shaken his confidence in the play in the least.
"We have no Mozart, as Salzburg has." Goldschmidt says. "We have no castle, as Edinburgh has. And we have no Shakespeare, as Stratford has. But we do have a beautiful city and we do have the grandest festival on the continent — the only one anywhere that brings together the best in the arts from Europe, the Americas, and Asia. Flow can we miss?" ic