For the past nine years, Pierre Simard has been commuting across Canada to conduct Nanaimo’s Vancouver Island Symphony.
Simard, who had been living in Calgary, Vancouver and the Montreal area over the last decade, would travel to Nanaimo for one busy week each month from October to April for rehearsals and performances. At first Simard found it manageable, but as he and his wife were raising a young family, eventually his work obligations butted up against his home life.
“My wife said, ‘OK, this is enough, let’s looks at what we can do,’” he said.
“We considered that schools for our children here would be great, this is great timing, all the ducks were in a row and we said, ‘OK, let’s do it. We’re moving the whole family to Nanaimo.’”
The conductor said he’ll be able to be more active with the symphony and his schedule will be “more breathable” now that he’s “on location.” He added that his presence will also help from a donation perspective, as he will now be able to meet personally with prospective sponsors.
Next month Simard begins his 10th season with the Vancouver Island Symphony. He said it’s a meaningful anniversary.
“The unlucky number in music is nine. Beethoven wrote nine symphonies, Mahler wrote nine symphonies and died, Bruckner the same and typically quite a few conductors with regional orchestras will stay for three mandates of three years and then they’re gone. so the 10-year mark is … pretty significant,” he said.
In recognition of that milestone, Simard is beginning the season’s first performance with a piece he wrote for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. He said the evening will be “a bit more special than usual” because it will feature his favourite Russian compositions.
“Prokofiev is my most favourite composer and believe it or not I have never conducted any Prokofiev here with this orchestra, so for me it’s an artistic landmark that we are finally doing a Prokofiev piece and it’s very virtuosic. It’s quite difficult,” he said.
“Same with Shostakovich and Stravinsky, it’s really a musical language that I understand.”
In April the season will conclude with a program called Pierre’s 10th Anniversary Concert, closing the year with a nod to Simard’s 10-year tenure.
“The very first piece that I conducted as artistic director, the first show when I was appointed was Beethoven’s ninth symphony, the choral symphony. I wanted to start with a message, super positive, joyful work and we’re reprising that as the last show this year,” Simard said.
“So we’re sort of bookending those 10 years with the exact same piece, which I find is a nice touch.”
Aside from the symphony’s four classical shows, this year’s season will include an evening in tribute to Leonard Cohen, a festive Christmas show and a night of Celtic music on St. Patrick’s Day. New for this year the symphony is offering a series of three hour-long Friday matinees to give an audience a taste of the longer Saturday night performances.
Simard said, at the risk of not sounding humble, that he’s seen the symphony reach and maintain a high skill-level over the past decade.
“I’m very, very proud that we are able to play things like Stravinsky’s Firebird. When you look at the music itself you go, ‘OK, this is tough” … well, we do it here,” he said.
“I feel today that I can pretty much choose whatever I want to play. Ten years ago I was extremely careful with choice of repertoire and artists that would come. Right now we have freedom.”