The evening began predictably enough. Orchestra London past president Ailene Wittstein took the podium at 8:05 p.m. to greet old and new season subscribers, thank corporate sponsors and welcome back the ensemble’s core musicians. She promoted the orchestra’s website and issued a special shout out to Deb Matthews, “our new health minister,” seated on Centennial Hall’s lower level.
The national anthem and Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 came next. Then intermission. Then, at 9:08 p.m., conductor Timothy Vernon ascended the podium again. Turning ’round to face the audience, he began a 10-minute extemporaneous plea to concertgoers to focus on the transformative power of music, not the cynicism and negativity of recent headlines, news stories and columns.
“It’s been a tough couple of months,” Vernon said, adding that he keeps up with press clippings from a distance. Judging from those, he said, one might think that the orchestra’s financial woes were “the main cultural story of the city of London.”
“Am I for keeping things secret? No . . . . But did I see anybody writing about our wonderful orchestra? No,” he chided, referring to recent reports about the organization’s descent into a million-dollar accumulated deficit. “For 50 years, Orchestra London has played beautiful music beautifully. That is the story,” he continued, dismissing the critics who pay undue attention to the bottom line without equal or greater attention to artistic achievement and the potential of music to lift the human spirit.
“Music provides solace, comfort and inspiration. It’s a great educational resource. The endless ramifications of a great performing musical body are things that we have yet to take into account in our public discourse in this city and I want you to help make that part of the discourse.
“Four million dollars to sustain something as magnificent as a symphony orchestra seems paltry — paltry,” he underlined. “Heck, I’ve got friends who are absolutely not wealthy and they won’t even buy a lottery ticket until it hits 10 [million dollars]. Let’s get some perspective. . . .
“Problems are problems. Nobody’s denying them. But it’s much more complicated than, ‘It’s somebody’s fault.’ It’s way too complex for it to be somebody’s fault. There are no villains,” Vernon said.
After a soliloquy about the ability of music to transport humanity and assist its search for meaning, Vernon repeated that line: “There are no villains. But there are some heroes. And I want to let you know that I’m standing in front of some of them. Because for some time this institution has been beleaguered, it’s been attacked, it’s been criticized, it’s been undermined. And through every moment of it, these artists, who I’m so proud to say are my colleagues, have come to work — and it is work — session after session, with a good attitude, with a good preparation, with a desire to express the great things they have discovered individually and to put it together as a body, which is so exciting and makes this vibrancy happen. I said it earlier in the year, but to me, that is the definition of integrity.”
At that point, Vernon asked the audience to applaud, which they did. But he wasn’t through.
“Thank you in advance for all the things you’re going to do to change this thing that’s out there — this culture-eating attitude that really doesn’t help. We can turn it around. We can make it interesting; we can make it vibrant. We can get the doubters, we can get the scoffers. Bring them in. Sit them down. Show them how wonderful it is,” he concluded.
And with that, Vernon, the orchestra and guest artist David Jalbert launched into Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 — a daunting work played with a precision and passion that exceeded, considerably, the earlier Schumann.
Update (Nov. 6): London Free Press reporter James Reaney reported this week that Vernon will give up his role as the orchestra’s musical director at the end of the current season. He’ll maintain a loose association with the orchestra, however, through the title of “conductor laureate.” Additional details will be available at the orchestra’s annual general meeting, set for Monday, Nov. 9, at 10 a.m. at the Station Park Hotel. A very odd time, by the way, for an AGM. Attendance will be sparse. Or might that be the point?