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the advocate

‘Few cities in North America enjoy the richness that Leila Getz has been able to offer Vancouver.’ Leila Getz, founder and Artistic Director of the Vancouver Recital Society, is photographed at her home in Vancouver, British Columbia, Sunday, December 23, 2012. Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and MailRafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

It is the moment Leila Getz treasures above all others, the peak in 32 years of presenting classical artists as the founder and artistic director of the Vancouver Recital Society.

By now renowned for her ability to spot young talent before they make it big, Ms. Getz secured much of that reputation by booking the incomparable Cecilia Bartoli when she was still a relatively unknown singer in her early 20s.

Ms. Bartoli arrived in bomber jacket, jeans and ponytail for her first rehearsal, with the CBC Radio Orchestra led by Mario Bernardi.

"The orchestra sat down and tuned up," Ms. Getz recounted. "Cecilia opened her mouth and sang the [first note], and Mario's baton flew right out of his hand, and he started applauding.

"Then, the whole orchestra put down their bows or whatever, and began to applaud, too. It was a moment of electricity you just can't repeat," Ms. Getz said.

"At the rehearsal intermission, there was a huge lineup for the phone. Orchestra members were calling their families, telling them to get tickets.

"That was the moment, the highest point of my career," she said, eyes still glowing at the memory. "The baton flying through the air, and people acting like they'd been shot."

Those are the experiences for which the legendary impresario lives. For more than three decades, Ms. Getz has been doing what many thought impossible: bringing top-flight but often unfamiliar recital artists to a city far from cultural hotspots – and not going broke.

Not easily done, says George Laverock, former program director of MusicFest Vancouver, which itself ran into financial difficulties this year. "Most people don't realize that every time you present a concert, it is a gamble. It takes a lot of courage to present, year after year, a roster of artists that are largely unknown to the general public."

But over time, Vancouver audiences have learned to trust Ms. Getz, with her unstinting promotion of superb recital performers. Notwithstanding the Society's own recessionary challenges, she has changed the face of classical music and put Vancouver on the map as a stopping point for the best.

"She's brought hundreds of outstanding music and solo artists to our city, most of whom would otherwise never have been exposed to our audiences," Mr. Laverock said. "Few cities in North America enjoy the richness that Leila Getz has been able to offer Vancouver."

Along the way, she has picked up memberships in the Order of Canada and the Order of B.C., plus an honorary degree from Simon Fraser University.

But that's not what drives her. "It's the discovery of new talent," she declared.

Her unerring instinct for honing in on up-and-coming performers before their reputations are secured has given Ms. Getz her own reputation, her choices scrutinized like tea leaves by agents and other classical-music promoters. "Leila Getz is the only person in the business for whom I jump when she snaps her fingers," an agency manager in London once wrote.

In addition to its coup with the young Ms. Bartoli, the Vancouver Recital Society also presented the celebrated Chinese pianist Lang Lang years ago. That was when he was just a youth of 15, before the spiky hair, travelling with his aunt and overjoyed to be taken for ice cream at the popular La Casa Gelato on Venables.

"You just get a feeling, something in your gut about someone," Ms. Getz said. "I really can't explain it."

Her latest discovery is Behzod Abduraimov, a 22-year-old pianist from distant Uzbekistan. She's wild about him.

At his first appearance here in October, Mr. Abduraimov left audience members literally screaming for more, Ms. Getz said. "It was electrifying. One woman told me she was so shocked, she couldn't move." He is already booked for a return visit in March.

A conversation with Ms. Getz is a performance in its own right. Behind-the-scenes revelations, passion and candour spill out rapid fire, like staccato notes on the piano. Nor does she mince words on the ongoing difficulties faced by classical music, bemoaning the disappearance of the arts from the education system and the lack of a specifically designed downtown arts venue. "The art gallery is in the bloody courthouse, and the symphony is at the Orpheum, which was a vaudeville house. That's the tragedy of this city."

At 71, Ms. Getz shows no sign of slowing down. "No, no," she interjected, at the mere mention of retirement. There are simply too many new discoveries waiting to be made. "I might miss something," she said.