Singing the praises of Vancouver Recital Society’s Leila Getz

True to the old adage that misery loves company, Music Toronto and the Vancouver Recital Society both had to cancel a recital by the popular British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor originally scheduled for last month.

You don’t have to be told why. Musical organizations across the country have been cutting short their 2019-20 seasons in the wake of COVID-19, a decision particularly painful for the Vancouver Recital Society since this has been its 40th anniversary.

Yes, it was four decades ago that a music-loving immigrant from South Africa, missing the top tier recitals she had enjoyed in her native Cape Town, accepted her husband’s challenge to stop moaning and do something about it.

“I really didn’t know what I was doing,” Leila Getz laughed the other day. “The only one who didn’t try to discourage me was Leon.”

Leon Getz had come to Vancouver to teach law at the University of British Columbia and knew enough to realize that his energetic spouse needed a project.

“I was certainly naïve,” she recalled. “But the important thing is to know what you don’t know and ask for help.” After all, turning pages for musicians at concerts in the capital of Cape Town scarcely prepares anyone to present them.

And so she began picking the best brains in the business. “Bill Lime (of London’s prestigious Wigmore Hall) taught me everything about recitals. I worship him.”

Her learning curve was obviously short. From a handful of events she saw her project grow to this season’s total of 19, two of them featuring one of her favourite artists, the celebrated pianist Sir András Schiff.

As an anniversary gesture the Hungarian-born virtuoso offered to perform not only an all-Beethoven program to celebrate the composer’s 250th birthday but an all-Bach program focusing on the Goldberg Variations.

The Bach was to have been a benefit concert with proceeds going to the society, with 34 sponsors (one each for the theme, its repetition and the 32 variations) with each sponsor contributing $ 500.

“This way I felt that people who didn’t necessarily have the big bucks could still be part of the celebration,” Getz said, “and we had a dinner for all of us planned following the performance.”

Although the concerts and dinner had to be cancelled, it is a measure of the kind of support the Recital Society enjoys that the sponsors did not ask for their money back.

This kind of support is needed, given the fact that, aside from a diminishing rent rebate from the City of Vancouver, no government money appears in its books.

“We built our audience on trust,” Getz explained. “This is how we can bring young unknown artists as well as András Schiff.” Not surprisingly, she brought the sensational Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli twice to Vancouver before she was heard in Toronto.

Some years ago, before economic realities forced its termination, the Vancouver Recital Society sponsored an annual chamber music festival, attracting outstanding chamber musicians and mixing and matching them in a series of stimulating programs.

The year I visited the festival and saw the superstar American violinist Joshua Bell, who enjoyed the experience so much that he asked if he could stay on to play some more.

It can be argued, of course, that anyone with a telephone and a cheque book can become an impresario. The reality is more complicated. You also need a nose. As the distinguished British pianist Paul Lewis recalled, “Leila Getz was the first presenter in North America to invite me to cross the Atlantic 20 years ago.”

She crosses the Atlantic often herself but those trips, too, have been cancelled this year — one being a trip to a conference of artist’s managers in Barcelona in May. She also visits music competitions to sniff out the emerging generation of talent. Her trip to Fort Worth to sit on the jury of the Cliburn International Competition for Outstanding Amateur Pianists has similarly vanished from the calendar this year.

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Blessed with a sharp intelligence, an engaging personality and a sense of fun (she had her French poodle Figaro photographed as director of security on the brochure for the Vancouver Chamber Music Festival) she nevertheless insists the work of Canada’s foremost musical enterprise of its kind represents a team effort. “I’m lucky. I still have the passion and I have a board that lets me do what I want.”

The board knows what it is doing. As Sir András Schiff puts it, “My very first recital in Canada was almost 40 years ago and it was — good guess — for the Vancouver Recital Society. Good guess or good Getz? Leila has created one of the best recital series in North America.”

Not bad for a concert page turner from Cape Town.

WL

William Littler is a Toronto-based classical music writer and a freelance contributing columnist for the Star.

TORONTO STAR