Bramwell Tovey, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra's charismatic British music director, can often be found in unusual situations.
To mark his arrival on the West Coast four years ago, Tovey led the VSO and 6,452 music students through a cacophonous rendition of O Canada at B.C. Place Stadium for an entry in The Guinness Book of Records as the world's largest orchestra.
Last year, he began getting up-close-and-personal with his audiences at the Orpheum Theatre when the VSO became the first orchestra in North America to incorporate jumbo video screens as a permanent feature of its regular series.
Next week, however, Tovey launches into one of his unlikeliest stunts yet. On Tuesday, he and the entire VSO enter CBC Radio's Vancouver Studio One to record a score, which the maestro composed, for a low-budget ($750,000) independent Canadian film called Eighteen.
"I'm still shocked that he went along with my harebrained scheme," says Richard Bell, a graduate of Langara College's Studio 58, who wrote and directed the movie.
"I thought he might offer me a violin or a piccolo player," adds Bell, 29 (who also happens to be a friend of this writer). "I never thought he'd offer me the full orchestra, let alone compose the music."
Although this is Bell's first full-length feature film, he made national headlines two years ago with a one-hour film called Two Brothers, which he produced for $545. It went on to become a cult favourite on the international gay-and-lesbian film-festival circuit and with its subsequent DVD release.
In his second outing, Bell didn't just score Tovey, but also charmed a star-studded cast into appearing in the film (including Tony Award-winning Alan Cumming and Queer as Folk's Thea Gill, with a voice-over by world-famous actor Sir Ian McKellen).
"Richard has written a very moving and extremely provocative screenplay," says Tovey. "He's a young man who is destined to go places." Eighteen tells the story of two young men at war with themselves. One (Paul Anthony) is a modern-day street kid; the other (Brendan Fletcher) is his grandfather, a soldier of the Second World War.
"It has been liberating to be free from the tyranny of Mozart or Beethoven," says Tovey, who describes the score as a pluralistic layering of three musical strands that support the film's main themes of homelessness, war and religion.
Tovey jokes about being liberated, but there once was a time, not very long ago, when the separation between the silver screen and symphony was as wide as the proverbial wall between church and state. Professional breaches were taken quite seriously.
"Movie music is noise," Sir Thomas Beecham, the great British conductor who died in 1961, once sneered. "It's even more painful than my sciatica."
But since then, the relationship between concert hall and cinema has shifted, beginning in the late seventies with John Williams's music for Star Wars, as Hollywood has returned to lush orchestral scores. And with orchestras across North America facing dwindling ranks of grey-haired fans, increasingly, they've been reaching out to new audiences by performing these familiar soundtracks.
Thursday on CBC Television's Opening Night, for instance, the CBC Radio Orchestra and Vancouver's erhu (Chinese violin) virtuoso George Gao performed Tan Dun's popular Crouching Tiger Concerto, based on Tan Dun's Academy Award-winning score for the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Similarly, the score for The Lord of the Rings movies, composed by Canadian Howard Shore (who wrote his first score for David Cronenberg's 1979 film The Brood), has become a favourite for orchestras around the world.
Rarely, though -- if ever -- has a conductor of Tovey's stature (he is also the chief conductor and music director of the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg) collaborated on a film this small.
"I guess it is a low-budget film," says Tovey. "But for anybody who has come from the subsidized art world, the strictures of being frugal and using your resources well are very familiar. I'm trying not to think about the budget and focus on the creativity."
Although individual musicians from the VSO have previously played for countless film soundtracks, the most famous of which is probably Oliver Stone's Platoon, this is the first movie that will enjoy the full force of all 70 players. A men's choir, including a boy soprano, will later be added to the mix. And if all goes according to plan, a well-known Canadian torch singer will lend her voice to a jazzy Second World War cabaret song, the lyrics of which Tovey and Bell co-wrote.
Tovey says the recording project never would have happened without a $50,000 grant for the VSO from Telus Corp. to help pay for the musicians. The money raised by a glitzy fundraising premiere for Eighteen at the Orpheum Theatre will also go to the orchestra. Tovey has waived his composer's fee.
But why on earth did he agree to do it in the first place?
Tovey cites several reasons. First, there is the film's theme of homelessness in Vancouver, a grim reality VSO members confront every time they cross Granville Street to enter the Orpheum.
"There are people with troubled lives seeking to stay alive on our very doorstep," says Tovey. "We felt this was a way to connect with our own environment and be part of the expression of these problems through another art form."
There was also a creative draw. "Although we, as an organization, are rooted in symphonic traditions, we are very aware of the musical creative process and the importance of staying bang up to date," says Tovey, pointing to the VSO's contemporary music series launched last year.
The film's war story also spoke to him personally, given the many members of his family who fought in two world wars. In 2003, Tovey won a Juno Award for his Requiem for a Charred Skull, a chilling composition inspired by the ethnic cleansing during the war in Kosovo.
"But the most important reason is Richard Bell," says Tovey. The two met last December at Vancouver's Wall Centre Hotel. The VSO had just completed a string of Christmas concerts at St. Andrew's Wesley Church on Burrard Street, and Tovey and VSO president Jeff Alexander were having a quick drink after the final concert at the hotel bar across the road.
"When suddenly up swept Richard," says Tovey. "He seemed to have footlights strapped to his feet. It all went from there."
Bell recalls griping to Tovey about the poor soundtracks in independent Canadian films.
"For a lot of Canadian filmmakers, music is an afterthought. I think it's hugely integral to the emotion of a film. It's not the backbone, but it's the organs, or the soul."
The two bonded immediately and Bell sent Tovey the script a few days later.
"I read it on an airplane, en route to England," Tovey explains. "There I was, surrounded by all these very dour businessmen. And by the time I reached the end, I had tears gushing out of my eyes. It was a very out-of-body experience."