Mozart, Brahms and Stravinsky spend a lot of time shut in at the Orpheum, but Jaelem Bhate (BMus'17, MMus'19), a rising star in Vancouver’s classical scene, is literally and metaphorically taking classical music to new places. With his own symphony orchestra, Symphony 21, he’s liberating the music from its concert hall confines and releasing it into the vibrant cityscape.
Symphony 21 played their first concert in September 2019 against a backdrop of exposed brick in a heritage building between Gastown and Railtown. There were cocktail bars and craft beer taps at the back of the room. And although COVID-19 has made in-person performance impossible for the last year, it hasn’t prevented the orchestra from exploring other novel venues. For their 2020 digital season, they performed and filmed one of their pieces — Kirsten Ewart’s “Warmth” — from the deck of the St. Roch, a schooner that travelled the Northwest Passage, circumnavigated North America, and now rests at the Vancouver Maritime Museum on English Bay.
This does not mean Bhate is averse to a traditional setting. He’s conducted in some of Canada’s grandest concert halls, including the Orpheum, where he conducted the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in 2019. A few months earlier, he’d gained national recognition for his work when he was named one of CBC’s “30 Hot Classical Musicians Under 30.”
Bhate composes music with an understanding that all genres are intimately connected to one another. In high school, he was a drummer for a rock band called Negative Attraction — classical and jazz initially paling in comparison to rock and roll. But Bhate came to love music in all its forms. Soon after he entered UBC as a science student, his old high school concert band performed at the Chan Centre. Bhate was asked to fill in as a conductor because of the BC teachers’ strike. He describes it as a “lightning-bolt” moment that convinced him to drop science and join the UBC School of Music.
Today, Bhate writes exhilarating pieces for jazz orchestra as well as classical. His inspirations stretch from Leonard Bernstein to the Beatles, and he created Symphony 21 in part so that people who don’t think of themselves as classical listeners would give the music a fair shot. “It’s a way to introduce a new idea, so that people don’t think they hate it before they even try it,” he says.
Part of the allure is the atmosphere Bhate creates. Ultimately, though, the music is the centre of his project. “Everything else can sometimes get in the way of the art, and it should always be the other way around,” he says. In the end, a composer’s devotion is to the music. Everything else in the business is secondary.