Classical music: Special multi-media show on for one night only with VSO

VSO will offer Video Games in Concert April 17, and a full roster of movies with live symphonic accompaniments planned for the summer

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Riopelle Symphonique: Art and Music with the VSO

When: April 20, 8 p.m.

Where:  Orpheum Theatre, 601 Smithe St., Vancouver

Like orchestras everywhere, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra is actively exploring new ways of appealing to new audiences for live symphonic music. This month, the VSO will offer Video Games in Concert April 17, and there’s a full roster of movies with live symphonic accompaniments planned for the summer.

But on Saturday April 20 there’s Riopelle Symphonique, a fascinating project with an entirely different game plan particularly targeted to our region’s serious art lovers: an homage to the great Québec-born painter Jean Paul Riopelle (1923–2002). His centenary last year sparked a remarkable 80-minute multi-media show launched by the Montréal Symphony Orchestra in February 2023; in just a few days the show makes its way to the Orpheum Theatre, one night only, for the first performance in the West.

Jean Paul Riopelle, Cap du nord, 1977, oil on canvas, 200 X 301 cmCollection Huguette Vachon, © Succession Jean Paul Riopelle / CARCC Ottawa 2024

The concept begins with a generous selection of paintings by Riopelle projected as the performance unfolds. The music is songs by Québec legend Serge Fiori, late of the Montréal progressive rock group Harmonium, given full orchestral treatment by composer Blair Thomson, who has been the go-to composer-arranger for projects with the MSO orchestra for nearly two decades.

In Vancouver the project is sponsored by The Audain Foundation, established by Michael Audain in 1997 to support the visual arts in B.C. Though the Audain family has links with the VSO, this is the first time the prestigious foundation has participated in a musical project. In a phone conversation, Audain told me “Riopelle is one of the most important visual artists of the modern period; he has been collected in countries all over the globe. His work has been of great interest to me.”

Jean Paul Riopelle, Sans titre (detail), oil on canvas, 86 X 146 cmCollection : McMichael canadian art, © Succession Jean Paul Riopelle / CARCC Ottawa 2024

Riopelle was born in Montréal, trained with legendary Québec painter Paul-Émile Borduas (1905–60), and was a signatory to the famous Refus Global manifesto, a revolutionary document that changed painting forever in Québec and all of Canada. Riopelle began as a surrealist before adopting his now renowned abstract expressionist style; by the 1950s he was a recognized presence on the international art scene.

Like so many Canadian artists of his generation, Riopelle decided to live and work in Europe for some of his career. Contacts in Paris included Jean Arp, André Breton, Alberto Giacometti, and writer Samuel Beckett. In the 1960s Riopelle began re-establishing his connections with his homeland, and by the 1970s he was dividing his time between Québec and France. Riopelle’s posthumous reputation has continued to grow; today, almost a quarter century after his death, his paintings and sculptures set record prices in the international art market.

Audain heard Riopelle Symphonique in its Montréal premiere at Place des Arts, and was astonished and delighted by a remarkable evening, enveloped in the power and effectiveness of this fascinating blend of visual and sonic arts. “I never dreamed I would be attending a live event devoted to Riopelle’s art,” Audain says, “It’s a special opportunity in combining art with orchestra and choral music.”

The VSO is going all out for this performance. Members of the Vancouver Bach Choir are on tap, as well as conductor Adam Johnson and the orchestra. Even composition students at the VSO School of Music are involved, collaborating with art students from Arts Umbrella to create new works directly inspired by Riopelle.

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