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On Saturday morning, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra performed with Steven Page for a physically distanced audience of 50 at Vancouver's Orpheum Theatre. They had been scheduled to perform together in the spring of 2020. Like everything else, the show was cancelled.

Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

It wasn’t quite 10 a.m., but it felt like opening night. Better than opening night, as we shuffled into the Orpheum theatre in ones and twos, physically distanced. Being back felt surreal, amazing, familiar – and a little strange. For more than 15 months, this had been impossible: We were about to hear live music in person, in a concert hall.

We were there to see the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra with the Steven Page Trio, courtesy of British Columbia’s move to Phase 2 of its COVID-19 reopening plan, which allows for such an event. The trio – Page, Craig Northey (of the Odds) on guitar and Kevin Fox on cello – had been scheduled to perform with the VSO in the spring of 2020. Like everything else, the show was cancelled. Rescheduled and rejigged, Saturday morning’s concert was billed as closing out the VSO’s 2020-21 season, such as it was.

There was a point early in the pandemic, before the vaccines, when I would wonder – I know I wasn’t alone – when on Earth we would be able to do this again. And what would it feel like, whenever that happened? It was bizarre to feel nostalgia for something I had been able to do just weeks earlier. But of course, everything felt bizarre then.

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I will never take this for granted again, I thought to myself at the Orpheum on Saturday, taking my seat – one of only two that were occupied in my row.

Masked members of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra walked on stage one by one, sitting down to tune their instruments. That sound! That beautiful cacophony. Never had I appreciated those disparate tones so much. The gleam of the French horn, the shine of the violins. The harp, the grand piano, the drums. I looked up; the ornate ceiling of the Orpheum came to life in a new way.

We were an audience of 50, spread out up in the balcony. The concert was recorded for the VSO’s live streaming site, and will be released July 6. Led by VSO associate conductor Andrew Crust, the orchestra was playing for a live audience for just the third time at the Orpheum since the shutdown.

While the joy of this reunion – audience and musicians, musicians and musicians – was palpable, the event began on an appropriately sombre note, with a welcome and prayer song by Dennis Thomas, a member of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation who sits on the VSO Indigenous Council and whose ancestral name is Whonoak.

“What’s going on right now is not going to stop. There’s going to be more findings,” he said, referring to the devastating discovery of unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools. “And I just really want to ask the Creator to bless each and every soul and every spirit as we mourn together, side by side.”

Page and the other members of the trio wore orange ties; many of the musicians wore orange ribbons.

Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

It was a hard moment to follow, but Page struck the exact right tone, acknowledging the tragedy – he and the other members of the trio wore orange ties; many of the musicians wore orange ribbons – and also the significance of us all being together, again.

“This is very intense,” Page said. The former Barenaked Ladies frontman lives in the U.S., and had to quarantine in order to perform in Vancouver. He noted it was the first time the trio had played for a live audience since early 2020.

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“It’s wonderful and terrifying,” Page said.

And then, the music: beginning with Page’s Gravity and what felt like an on-point opening lyric. “So this is how the whole world ends ...”

Gravity’s mournful opening turns upbeat – musically, anyway – with a Latin-feeling sort of groove, which also seemed fitting on this unusually steamy Vancouver weekend.

What followed were intoxicating performances of songs by a variety of Canadian artists, along with stories about and tributes to the likes of Leonard Cohen, John K. Samson of the Weakerthans and Gord Downie.

Page called Downie a teacher. He said watching him on stage was like a lesson in “how to transcend and entertain, make people laugh, make people think.”

The arrangements – by a number of musicians, including Fox and Page’s former BNL bandmate Andrew Creeggan – were gorgeous. Call and Answer – with a splash of Bridge Over Troubled Water – has never sounded better to me.

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To add to the magic of the morning, there was even a marriage proposal in the audience.

It’s amazing, what music does to us; it’s almost otherworldly, what can happen, especially when it’s live. Goosebumps during Chancellor, tears leaking into my mask through Call and Answer, a compulsion to sing along with strangers to Brian Wilson – the morning’s final number.

It was a short performance, about 45 minutes. I could have sat there all day (and it wasn’t just the air conditioning). It was a little taste of all that’s to come, if we can continue to figure our way out of this. When we get to the point where we can be ourselves again.

The performance will be released on theconcerthall.ca on July 6 at 7:30 p.m. Pacific.

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