Seeing the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra for the First Time was Weird

Attending the celebration concert for the VSO’s 100th anniversary was my first, and probably my last, brush with high culture music in the city

Members of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra performed “Also sprach Zarathustra” for the VSO’s 100th anniversary. (Tristan Johnston)

Like eating caviar or joining a yacht club, buying tickets to see the symphony may seem like an unnecessary indulgence for us empty-pocketed students.

I had never seen a classical concert as an adult until I went to the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s 100th anniversary performance on June 7, and walking into the Orpheum that night, I didn’t really know what to expect.

Right off the bat, when I arrived with two other contributors to The Runner, I felt out of place. Did my outfit look cheap? Could they tell I was media? Was it weird that I was so young and boisterous? Did I have to lift my pinky while I drank my $12 glass of red wine? Did I have to golf clap after the orchestra was done, or just normal clap?

There were so many questions in my mind, and no one was there to answer them. Until, that is, I talked to Noah Reitman, assistant principal bass for the VSO.

“There’s something intimidating about sitting there. You don’t know when to clap. There’s no words, there’s only notes,” he told me in a conversation over the phone one night before the show.

“No cell phones during the playing. You can take pictures while we’re standing up and everybody’s clapping. There’s not a lot of time to clap between movements, so just clap when you want to,” he continued. 

And then, “Gone are the days when everybody had to wear a suit. You’ll see people in sandals for sure, maybe one or two, but they’ll be the exception. A nice button-down shirt is more than enough. It’s a nice opportunity to show off your style if you want to be fancy. It’s fun in that way. You can come as you are, but you can also tap into your classy side.”

Suddenly, I found myself even more nervous about clapping expectations. And attire expectations. And expectations in general, but Reitman’s laid back demeanor assured me that I could have fun even if I wasn’t some high-falutin person. 

“You don’t have to be some high-falutin person to enjoy a high culture experience,” he explained. “Enjoy yourself. Check out the lobby. Have a drink at intermission if you’re allowed to, and take in the scene.”

I’ve been to hoity-toity events before, but there was something about this one that had me pulling at my collar, even after Reitman’s words of support. I was excited and ready to have a pleasant outing, yet I couldn’t help but feel like I stuck out in the crowd of old, rich folks dressed to the nines.

All of these emotions came before we even walked through the front doors. Since we had to grab food and meet up after work before arriving, we got there 10 minutes past the written showtime, and were promptly told that we would have to wait until intermission to enter. We asked nicely, but were politely turned away, so we sat outside on the concrete for a half hour.

Now, call me crazy, but I feel like it’s appropriate to show up a good 10 minutes late to most kinds of shows. The movies? Sure thing, skip the trailers. A rock concert? The openers never start on time anyways. Even in theatre, there’s usually a low-key introduction before the ball really gets rolling, and people get escorted to their seats during plays all the time. As someone who had never been to VSO before, being turned away for being only a few minutes late left a sour taste in my mouth. 

There was no sort of notification that the intermission had ended. When we walked back into the Orpheum, we had apparently arrived literally five minutes after we were supposed to. The man who checked our tickets tried to turn us away again, even though we were on the media list, and one of the photographers with me had already been shooting throughout the first half of the performance. 

After a genuinely surprising amount of hemming and hawing about latecomers, he led us to a side door and sat us at the back of the room. Before this, however, he made sure to be shockingly condescending while he walked us through why exactly we couldn’t sit in our seats, and instead had to sit in the last row of the floor level. It is distracting for the performers and disrespectful to the audience and they don’t usually do this but clearly we don’t come here often so he would do it just this one time—and so on and so forth. Finally, we got to sit down.

Once there, I actually did enjoy watching the symphony. The sound in the Orpheum was beautiful, and feeling the vibration of the instruments all around me was more stimulating than I had imagined. Watching the instrumentalists play with the conductor swaying before them felt like watching an elaborate choreographed dance being performed. It was something new to me, and for a second there, I almost felt like a rich young aristocrat.

The piece that was being played, “Also sprach Zarathustra”, was inspired by one of Nietzsche’s philosophical novels and used iconically in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, so I was already familiar with it going in. Knowing the music did make being there far more engaging, and I found myself getting excited as the sound swooped and swelled around me. That was the best part.

It was fun—until anybody moved in any way at all, which was immediately annoying and also kind of funny. If you’ve ever taken a test in a quiet room and had your entire train of thought derailed by some schmuck tapping their pencil or rustling around in their bag, you know how hard it can be to withhold your laughter as the pure silence is abruptly broken. Now imagine that, except all the people around you are 50 years old and look like they just hopped out of an episode of The Twilight Zone.

Also, they don’t find it funny. Only you do. This makes it much more hilarious.

The whole experience was strange, but not horrible. If it weren’t for the constant air of pretension hanging over the crowd—and the incessant feeling that I wasn’t really supposed to be there—I might even make a habit of coming back. 

Still, spending over $20 to do anything on a weeknight is a little rich for my blood, and if I’m gonna do it, I don’t really want to be scoffed at. Nor do I want to be stressed out over whether or not my social etiquette is acceptable to John and Mary up in the first row, or whether or not I’m proper enough for the door guy. No offense, Orpheum people, but I’m not really concerned about whether or not you waggle your eyebrows at me for being 240 seconds late to the performance I clearly came here to see. And I definitely don’t want to pay a chunk of my dwindling expendable income for that experience.

That being said, I could have just had a bad night, or gotten a bad bunch of folks around me. I probably will try it again when I’ve saved up a bit of money, just to see what it’s like the second time. You know what they say; don’t knock it till you try it, and then when you do try it and don’t like it, knock it in an article in The Runner.