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Leila Getz: An Overture of Agelessness
Written by Liberty Craig   

Leila GetzOn the brink of 70, Leila Getz has more flair for life and love of the absurd than ever. A celebrated impresario with an uncanny ability to spot musical talent in its fledgling state, Leila and her Vancouver Recital Society have spent the past 31 years impressing chamber music audiences with her impeccable taste.

A member of the Order of Canada, Leila received an Honorary Doctorate from Simon Fraser University, plus a multitude of other awards and honours that attest to her remarkable ear for the exquisite. Leila's fearless commitment to quality is the raison d'etre of her distinguished career in Vancouver's small but vibrant classical music community. Leila spoke with Fresh Vancouver about the irrelevance of age, her irreverence to time, and the necessity of living a life of passion.

Leila: My first statement to you, and it's without even a question, is life begins at 40. It's such a cliché, but it's true. That's when I founded the Vancouver Recital Society. I think by age 40 you have more maturity; you know what you want to do... and you're desperate to get it done before you hit fifty!

Fresh Vancouver (FV): What prompted you to start the Vancouver Recital Society 31 years ago?

Leila: I had an aunt in South Africa who founded a very successful open-air Shakespearean theatre. She was a woman with a great deal of chutzpah and charm, and no corporate bent whatsoever. This was a real inspiration for me – you don't have to have an MBA to start a theatre company. When I came to Vancouver, there were no solo recitals except big names. I wanted to introduce new international artists to Vancouver, but everybody said I was crazy and it would fail – everybody except my husband. I thought if it failed after a year I would do something else, but the first year was a huge success!

FV:In these mass-media dominated days of girl pop stars, who is your market?

Leila: Chamber music is always an older audience. The challenges today are enormous for classical music – not just in Vancouver. In New York or London you'll find the exact same audience as ours. Over the past 30 years we've built an audience on trust – they don't know the names of the musicians they're going to hear, but they trust my taste and my judgement. There aren't millions of people breaking down the door to come, but there are people who love great music and fabulous talent.

FV:How has your vision for the VRS changed since the early years?

Leila: It hasn't. On the one hand, I realize times have changed, and maybe it should change. But I believe very strongly that an arts organization should lead its public and not follow its public. I am totally committed to quality. All I ever strive for is to have people leave the hall feeling better than when they came in.

FV:You grew up in South Africa under the shadow of apartheid. How has this influenced your life and work?

Leila: I don't think you can be a sensitive South African growing up in those worst years of apartheid without being scarred in some way. Just imagine a system where a child of five would say to a sixty-year-old woman: "Pick up my fork!" That was the mentality! It doesn't happen anymore, but it was horrible. My childhood home was raided in the middle of the night – the police turned the house upside down without telling my father why. We surmised afterwards that my father, a dentist, had a patient who'd been arrested for a bombing, and my father's name had appeared in this man's notebook – of course because he had an appointment. I would have police watching my house if my music students happened to be black. To be with a black man if you were a white woman was against the law. How can you not be affected by those everyday things?

FV:And you knew growing up that this was wrong?

Leila: Oh, absolutely! My parents were very liberal... but still, I think if you were a white South African with any conscience at all, you had to stick your head in the sand to survive. But I still love South Africa; I miss it like anything – the smells, the beauty. It's part of me. And I fear enormously for its future.

FV:What's your favourite concert you've ever presented?

Leila: The first time we presented worldrenowned opera singer Cecilia Bartoli. I had to convince the CBC radio orchestra to collaborate with her, since Bartoli was an unknown then. I'll never forget the first rehearsal: Cecilia came in with a bomber jacket, a pony tail and jeans. The orchestra started and she opened her mouth and let out that first note, and the conductor's baton went flying out of his hand, and the orchestra applauded, and I just started to cry! I also presented Lang Lang when he was only 15, and of course he's a superstar pianist now. My life has been so blessed with these kinds of experiences.

FV: Tell us your philosophy on aging...

Leila: Sometimes when people ask me my age, I tell them I'm 84 and they say, "Wow! You look so young!" My kids have convinced me since the age of fifty that I'm old, so I've been old for twenty years. But I don't give a damn! It's how you feel. If you're lucky enough to be healthy and you can still function, that's all there is to it. The only time I feel old is when I catch sight of myself in the mirror and see how old I really am. Otherwise, I act like a kid.

FV: What do you do to keep your skin looking so lovely?

Leila: I just put on my face what makes it feel good. A Metrin salesperson left a sample package at my office, where it sat for weeks before I decided to try it. That was two years ago, and I've been using it ever since. It's absolutely phenomenal. I also use a wonderful Israeli product called Ahava.

FV: What about your diet and exercise programmes?

Leila: I drink my protein shakes every morning and pretend they taste good. I take B-complex vitamins. I have a personal trainer twice a week and two standard poodles that make me walk every day. I know what's good for me and my husband... in theory. We stick to brown rice and whole wheat bread, and we're very careful day to day. But my passion is ice cream – and I fall off the wagon more than you can imagine! When I die I want my tombstone to say: She died of Haagen Dazs!

FV: You've won many awards and accolades over the years, including your Honorary Doctorate from SFU and the Order of Canada. Has all this recognition sustained your drive over the years?

Leila: I'm very proud of each distinction, but I do what I do because I have a passion for it, because I'm driven and I love taking risks and discovering things. I get as many knocks as I get recognition, but you have to expect that if you're in the public eye at all – some will love you to death and some will think you a walking disaster. When I make a mistake I celebrate it. I rush into the middle of the office and say: "Hey guys, you'll never guess how stupid I am. You are looking at the world's biggest idiot!" And they'll say: "That's not good PR!" But you have to celebrate your mistakes and hopefully learn from them. I can't stand pretention or trying to be what you're not.

FV: Any plans to retire?

Leila: I used to quote Warren Buffet saying that he would retire about 25 years after he died! But I will retire within the next few years. I'd love to travel; I'd love to do cooking classes. I'll tell you my new dream: My favourite part of BC is the area around Osoyoos – it reminds me "I drink my protein shakes every morning and pretend they taste good. I take B-complex vitamins. I have a personal trainer twice a week and two standard poodles that make me walk every day. I know what's good for me and my husband... in theory." of South Africa. There's a winery called Nk'Mip at Spirit Ridge, with an absolutely stunning cultural centre and a sculpture garden that is to die for. That is where I would like to hold chamber music concerts. I'd like to have concerts in different wineries in the Okanagan and organize trips with great wine and lovely food...

FV: When you reflect upon the trajectory of your career, what comes to mind?

Leila: My day to day life is so busy that I never have time for reflection. When I'm not at the office I feel challenged to do the things that I ought to be doing... the housework and so on. I don't give myself time to reflect. My best ideas come to me either stuck in a traffic jam or in the shower. I'm not the kind of person who thinks about things; I'm happier to just do, just keep doing things.

FV: Is that what keeps you young?

Leila: I just don't think about it. Sometimes I'll catch myself acting like a twenty-two year old. Have you ever heard the expression, "mutton dressed as lamb"? That comes to mind quite often! I went off the other day to get a pair of slim pants, the kind that tuck into boots, but I looked in the mirror and thought: This is disgusting! [Laughing] I settled for the kind that are narrow but not skinny.

Leila Getz

Liberty Craig - Editor

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