The Vancouver International Festival (aka Vancouver Festival) was held for a few weeks each summer from 1958 to 1968. Modelled on festivals in Edinburgh and Salzburg, it predominantly featured opera and concert artists from Europe and the United States. Financial and artistic policies were constantly criticized. Beginning in the early 1960s the festival tried, in a fumbling, inconsistent way, to move away from the highbrow Edinburgh model and be more local, popular and cheaper. It enjoyed some success in its final season but an overwhelming deficit forced it to cease operations.
In 1949, Iby Koerner, Mary Roaf and Elena Arkell Wait, all executives of the Community Arts Council of Vancouver, first discussed the possibility of a summer festival with members of Vancouver's academic, artistic and business circles. After the success of the Summer School of the Arts at the University of British Columbia, plans for such a festival were revived in 1954, and the Vancouver International Festival was incorporated in 1955. Financial support came from the Canada Council and the Koerner Foundation, and from corporate and private donors.
The first festival, organized by Nicholas Goldschmidt, was held in the summer of 1958 in the Orpheum Theatre, the Georgia Auditorium and the Hotel Vancouver Ballroom. It included orchestral concerts, chamber music recitals, a major choral work (the Verdi Requiem), an opera (Don Giovanni), a drama (the premiere of Lister Sinclair's The World of the Wonderful Dark, which was seen as a major event), and an international film festival. Artists included the singers Pierrette Alarie, Maureen Forrester, George London, Lois Marshall, Aksel Schiøtz, Léopold Simoneau and Joan Sutherland, as well as the pianist Glenn Gould, the conductors André Previn and William Steinberg, the mime artist Marcel Marceau and the Oscar Peterson Trio.
BMI Canada and CAPAC offered two $1,000 prizes (one for orchestral music, one for chamber music) to Canadian composers, whose prize-winning works received their first public performances at the festival. Only one winner was named, Paul McIntyre, for his cantata Judith, and the prize was awarded solely by CAPAC.
The City of Vancouver and the provincial and federal governments provided financial support to the second festival, which was even more ambitious. The newly opened Queen Elizabeth Theatre helped to facilitate a broadened concert schedule. Three works were commissioned: String Quartet No. 3 by Harry Somers, for premiere by the Hungarian String Quartet; Tryptique, an orchestral work by Pierre Mercure; and Four Songs for high voice and orchestra by Robert Turner. The festival also presented an array of attractions which included Harry Belafonte, the Cassenti Players, the Montreal Bach Choir, Anna Russell, the Takarazuka Dance Theatre, and the conductors Herbert von Karajan and Bruno Walter, who appeared as guests with the festival orchestra.
In an attempt to reduce financial losses, the third festival was shorter and the programs were of a more general nature. Stellar attractions were the Peking Opera, symphony concerts conducted by William Steinberg and Carlos Chávez, and two performances each by the New York Philharmonic (conducted by Leonard Bernstein), the Kingston Trio, Glenn Gould and Kerstin Meyer.
The fourth season included appearances by Les Disciples de Massenet, the New York City Ballet, the Red Army Chorus and the soprano Irmgard Seefried. There was opera (the North American premiere of Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream, with Russell Oberlin and Mary Costa) and a large increase in pop content in the programming. Despite this, the festival incurred a considerable deficit and was harshly treated by critics. In the Canadian Music Journal (Autumn 1961), Kenneth Winters called it “a week of festival in a month of mediocrity” and described the increasing pop-concert bias of the programming as “a capitulation of patience, foresight and courage in the face of crude economics.”
It was not until early in 1962 that sufficient funds (donated by individuals, the city and the province, and raised in part through the efforts of radio station CHQM) guaranteed a fifth festival. The 1962 program featured the Comédie Francaise, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and the Stratford Festival production of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance. In addition, the Vancouver Opera presented The Magic Flute, and audiences heard concerts and recitals by the CBC Vancouver Chamber Orchestra, the Juilliard Quartet, and the duo-pianists Vronsky and Babin.
This was the last season in which an international film festival was included. Because of the continuing large deficit, a suspension of the 1963 festival was considered and a new policy was adopted. It was decided that future festivals would be constructed around themes reflecting the life of countries from which Canada had derived its cultural heritage. The provincial government offered more money (on a matching basis), and fund-raising concerts were presented in the winter of 1962–63.
The sixth festival, on a British theme, presented several plays and The Best of Spring Thaw. In the winter of 1963, the festival brought the Moscow Circus to Vancouver to raise funds for the 1964 festival.
Built on a French theme, the 1964 program included stars of the Paris Opera Ballet, Zizi Jeanmaire, Les Ballets de Paris, and Charles Munch conducting the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, which for the first time played in the festival under its own name.
In 1965, the Vancouver International Festival changed its name to the Vancouver Festival and dropped the one-country theme. The eighth festival is remembered chiefly for the conducting of Igor Stravinsky and the performance of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev.
For the 1966 festival it was decided that the Vancouver Opera Association, the Playhouse Theatre Co. and the VSO would each prepare at least one production. The opera presented Hansel and Gretel, the festival Oliver, and the Playhouse Theatre Big Soft Nellie and The Threepenny Opera. The orchestra under Meredith Davies performed twice, once to mark the centenary of Busoni's birth. The Bolshoi Ballet and a National Film Board presentation were included in the program.
The 1967 festival opened with a concert conducted by Sir Arthur Bliss. Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West was produced by the Vancouver Opera Association, and Van Cliburn and George Malcolm gave recitals.
Despite the success of the Robert Joffrey City Centre Ballet, the pre-Broadway production of And Now, Noel Coward and a symphony concert that drew 8,000 people to the new Pacific Coliseum, the deficit reached $322,000 and the festival was terminated.
Festival presidents included W. C. Mainwaring (1958–59), General Sir Ouvry Roberts (1960–61), T. N. Beaupre (1962–63), David S. Catton (1964), Martin A. Linsley (1965) and R.A.C. Douglas (1966–68). Artistic directors included Nicholas Goldschmidt (1955–62), Dino Yannopoulos (1962–64), and Gordon Hilker followed by William Crawford in 1964. From 1965 to 1967, in the absence of an artistic director, the festival was supervised by Hugh Pickett, Dora McQuade and Julia Switzer. Hilker assumed the directorship again for the final year, 1968. Reports on the Festival can be found in the autumn issues of the Canadian Music Journal (vols. 3–6, 1958–61).
See also: Music in Vancouver.