Barbarians at the gates: Vagabond Opera ignites West Vancouver Library

Portland’s Vagabond Opera played tasteful, sedate, opulent-to-the-point-of-self-asphyxiation West Vancouver—and it was a big hit.

Vagabond Opera

Portland’s Vagabond Opera admitted, “it’s been a long time gone from BC”, so when the Jazz Fest decided to stage this irreverent Balkan Gypsy, Steampunk hewn extravaganza of a band, where do you think they put them? The Vogue? Ironworks?

How about The West Vancouver Memorial Library?

That’s right, they played tasteful, sedate, opulent-to-the-point-of-self-asphyxiation West Vancouver. How that came to be is a story I’ll get to later because for those of you not familiar with Vagabond Opera, there are some things you need to know first.

“If you kiss a thief, count your teeth”

Vagabond Opera has been around for some 12 years, taunting audiences with its own brew of Euro, opera, glam, cabaret, er, something… they’re not easily defined. From the vintage clothing (a haberdasher’s dream come true) to the truly outrageous (and sometimes obscene) lyrics and finally to the first-rate performing—Vagabond Opera is a delightfully weird surprise.

Vagabond Opera opened with "Amor ti Vieta" ("Love forbids you") from the opera Fedora by Italian composer Umberto Giordano. Eric Stern, accordionist, founder, and leader of the band then berated the audience sitting near the paperback carrousels to feel free to grab a book­—“maybe something by Joan Collins if you’re getting bored”—before launching into a Yiddish number, “If you kiss a thief, count your teeth”.

“If you kiss a thief…” is a grand tour that makes many ports of call along the way: My ears picked out quotes from Bach (“Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”), Brubeck (“Take Five”), Edvard Grieg (“In the Hall of the Mountain King”), and even the “Mission Impossible” theme from TV. And here, I also noticed how talented the players were in Vagabond Opera.

Cellist Skip Von Kuske performed an extended solo using a pedal looper. It allowed him to record the 5/4 “Take Five” rhythm on the fly, then add some fills, and finally improvise over his own multi-tracked recording. Using a looper isn’t hard to do, but it’s hard to do tastefully. Often what happens with this sort of technology is it turns the musician into a geek­—a self-indulgent geek. In cellist Skip’s case, the looper was an extension first of his cello, and second of his soul.

“There was this girl…she can shoot an apple with her toes”

Eric capitalized on the virtuosity of his players by having Skip on cello and Sammy on tenor saxophone go head to head in a musical cage match (with the audience egging them on). Of course it was more than vulgar theatrics. Sammy, for example, was a treat because, whether or not he was playing, he was always inside the music ready to jump in on a moment’s notice (owing in no small part to his rock solid rhythm). Just listening to them re-ignited my passion for music.

“I wish I was Marlene Dietrich”

When introducing songs Eric Stern kind of looked like a circus barker, but he’s the ideal band leader from the audience’s point of view. As he introduce “I wish I was Marlene Dietrich”, he scanned the Main hall vamping away on his accordion. Suddenly he stopped and asked, “Do you have to use proper grammar in a library?” But before we could identify what the grammar offence might be, he corrected himself using the past subjunctive form: “I wish I were Marlene Dietrich”. Either way, it’s clearly the band’s party piece, and by the end of the evening it was well on the way to joining my desert island collection.

Collaboration and community

Fiona Black, Director of Programming at the BlueShore Financial Centre for the Performing Arts at Capilano University explained to me that the North Shore Jazz Festival “is basically a satellite series done in partnership with the bigger festival”, meaning of course and the more famous TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival. Fiona added, “We are careful to vary our programming with the main festival and not compete but rather complement each other. World Music and Blues have been popular genres in North Shore Jazz”.

North Shore Jazz has just completed its 13th season and its 8th season with The West Vancouver Memorial Library. When Vagabond Opera performed there the hall was packed, but I wanted to know more about how it came to be that the library was hosting Jazz concerts—for free. David Carson, Communications and Event Coordinator at the Library explained that the Library has philanthropist Robert Leslie Welsh to thank for that. In 2001, Welsh bequeathed 2.2 million dollars to the Library stipulating that it be earmarked for music. To date, the Library has endowed its listening room with CDs, sheet music (including the procurement of all the orchestral scores belonging to the now-defunct CBC (Toronto) Radio Orchestra Library), a capital project for the construction of the 120-seat Welsh Concert Hall, and of course to host free concerts.

David was quick to mention that their own concert series (running every third Friday of the month between September and June) sees high attendance with concerts appealing to all ages. Hearing Vagabond Opera was a treat and while it was wild and weird, the happy crowd at the Library in West Vancouver got the best of both worlds: whacky fun music in an venue that has built its reputation on building community. 

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