Classical revolution:

🕔Mar 27, 2008

Dorothy Giesbrecht’s new carbon-fibre cello groans, sending its haunting reverberations dancing off the walls of her log home 15 minutes from Smithers. The instrument is her new inspiration, continuing a 50-year passion for music that began at a young age.
This isn’t Carnegie Hall or Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, but there’s something strangely fitting about the combination of firelight, wood smoke and snowy mountains outside as it melds with the soothing melody. While northern BC’s landscapes provide local musicians with inspiration, they also have produced some of the country’s most accomplished musicians.
But perhaps most importantly, northern British Columbia’s classical music scene has promoted a non-competitive, community-minded atmosphere that has fostered and encouraged many amateur musicians and continues to lure hidden talent from closets from Prince Rupert to Prince George—and beyond.
“I found things are more inclusive here. You don’t have to be at a professional level to be included,” says Giesbrecht, who left behind an urban music scene when she moved to Smithers 34 years ago. “I feel like it has a lot to do with the beauty of where we live and the people that choose to live here. They choose this area to live and tend to be influenced by the beauty.”
Giesbrecht credits a handful of dedicated classical musicians for fostering musical interest in the Smithers area. When she arrived, she says, she wasn’t aware of another violinist in town. Since then, a selection of dedicated strings instructors has brought numerous new players of all ages into the fold. Enthusiasm has also led to the creation of musical events, which in turn create excitement around the classical music scene.
“Because it’s a small setting, when performers come here we can organize a workshop—and performers become very accessible to us,” she says. “Just being in the same room, rubbing shoulders—even if you don’t learn something technical from them—I think it’s very inspiring.”

Strung out in Smithers
This spring, the Bulkley Valley Strings Society will host a groundbreaking musical retreat in the countryside near Smithers—a first of its kind for northern BC.
The Northwest String Orchestra Workshop takes place May 16 to 18 at the Logpile Lodge. Made possible by a 2010 ArtsNow grant, the retreat will host 50 classical musicians from across the Northwest, accommodating all levels with three concurrent sessions and three world-class instructors: Calgary’s Joanne Melvin, Vancouver’s James Malmberg, and Winnipeg’s Anna Hughes.
Weather permitting, the workshop may conclude with an outdoor amphitheatre concert.
“Smithers in May can be beautiful. I’m picturing new green grass, snow on the mountains, 360-degree views of the Babines and Hudson Bay Mountain. To me, landscapes and music are very connected,” Giesbrecht says.
Laura Hols, director of the Bulkley Valley Classical Strings Society, derives great pleasure from bringing new players into the northern classical music scene: “These somewhat isolated northern communities getting so many people involved,” she says. “The neat thing about classical music here is you don’t have the snobbery and elitism that often comes with big centres.
“One thing that I’m quite passionate about lately is being able to provide opportunities and education for adult players as well as children,” she says, describing a plethora of “closet string players” in the area. Take, for example, Smithereen Lena Von Seydlitz, who watched her children take music lessons for years. As the kids finished high school, she decided she’d pick up the violin herself.
Growing up in Houston with a musically dedicated mother who drove her to Prince George Conservatory of Music every other week for violin lessons, Hols recalls practicing her violin in somewhat of a vacuum. “Because it’s the north, everyone has their isolated groups.
“So our goal for this workshop is to bring accomplished musicians together from remote communities across the North—from Smithers to Burns Lake, Whitehorse to Prince George, Terrace to Prince Rupert—and build even more of a classical community specifically from the northwest.” She mentions, as an example, a world-class violist in Fort Saint James: “We want to build connections like that.”

Tinkling the Ivories in Terrace
Terrace Symphony Orchestra president and first violinist Bonnie Juniper clearly remembers the sense of isolation she experienced growing up as a dedicated classical musician: “It was very lonely, and it wasn’t something that would foster wanting to do more if I had not had that kind of personality,” says Juniper, who played piano as a child and started pursuing violin in her mid-20s.
Juniper remembers playing her music alone, rarely exposed to other musicians or live performances. Now a piano and violin teacher with the Terrace Academy of Music, she strives to pass her passion for classical music along to her students through live performances.
“We don’t dance minuets anymore,” she says, adding that classical music doesn’t have the same context for today’s youth that it would have had a century or more ago. “You have to keep rejuvenating the sense of wonder of what classical music has to offer.”
The Terrace Symphony Orchestra began in 1996 and helps expose northerners to live classical music, but keeping enthusiasm strong in the North can be challenging. “You have your core of dedicated supporters and interested people. I guess it’s like that with everything—there are those who are willing to do what it takes to keep it going. In that sense, it’s not going to disappear,” says Juniper.
Terrace’s music scene centres around the annual Pacific Northwest Music Festival, a combination of performance and friendly competition encompassing all ages that has been running for 46 years. This spring, the festival is set to run April 3 to 19.
“The adjudicators that come to Terrace are thrilled at what they find here—they’re always surprised. Most importantly, we try to foster the sense that music is a sharing experience, not a competitive experience. You are competing, but ultimately it’s with yourself,” Juniper says.
In May, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra violinist Mary Sokol Brown, as well as CBC Orchestra cellist Ari Barnes, will be in town to work with the Terrace Symphony and, hopefully, some of the younger students in the community. Then, the Terrace Symphony Orchestra will perform its Season Finale Concert at Knox United Church on June 14.

Chamber Music in PG
Perhaps it’s Prince George, the metropolis of the North, that has had the greatest success in producing classical musicians whose accomplishments are noted on the national stage. Last year, the Prince George Conservatory of Music joined CBC Radio in organizing a reunion that celebrated five of the city’s musical prodigies.
“It was a fundraiser for the conservatory but was also meant to be inspirational to students and the community, to show that a small town that’s a little more isolated from big centres can produce as good talent as anywhere,” says Jordan Dyck, artistic director at the conservatory and principal cellist with the Prince George Symphony Orchestra (PGSO).
Broadcast on CBC Radio 2’s Canada Live, the concert featured Jonathan Crowe who, at age 22, became concertmaster at the Montreal symphony (the youngest in the history of any major orchestra in North America), Winnipeg Chamber Orchestra concertmaster Karl Stobbe, Winnipeg Symphony principal second violin Darryl Strain, Vancouver’s Borealis String Quartet cellist Joel Stobbe, and pianist David Louie, a senior faculty member at the Glenn Gould School of Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music.
The Boys are Back in Town chamber music concert paid tribute to an era in Prince George’s classical music history when all five (currently all in their early to mid-30s) studied together at the conservatory, creating a legacy that would put Prince George on the classical music map.
“The concert was a huge success, and I think it came as a surprise to a lot of people to see that these players had achieved some of the highest positions in orchestras and music schools in Canada,” says Dyck.
While Dyck describes highs and lows in the PGSO’s 25-year existence, current conductor Les Dala is the longest-standing conductor in the orchestra’s history, creating a sense of stability and developing a core of professional musicians that raises the symphony’s performance caliber and ability to play classics like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Carmina Burana.
Dyck, 27, was born in Prince George but moved away at age 11. He returned—at first reluctantly—to teach at the conservatory after graduating from the University of Victoria with a degree in composition and theory, and soon found himself with a full-time position at the symphony orchestra. He says that one of the biggest challenges is luring new teachers away from the big city lights to work in Prince George.
“There’s a feeling that you have to stay in a major centre to have a successful career. But some musicians feel that they can go to a smaller centre and develop their skills or get teaching experience. Basically, if you’re a good musician there’s tons that you can do here.”
As well, Dyck points out, life in the North offers a standard of living that many musicians are unable to achieve in urban centres: the opportunity to own land and a decent house at a reasonable price, the outdoor lifestyle, and the chance to excel in a friendly, community-oriented classical music scene.


April 3 to 19: The Pacific Northwest Music Festival takes place in Terrace, incorporating musical performance and competition. For more information, visit

May 16 to 18: The Bulkley Valley Strings Society hosts the Northwest String Orchestra Workshop at the Logpile Lodge in Smithers. For more information, visit

April 27: Sunday Serenade, held 2 pm at St. Michael & All Angels Anglican Church in Prince George, features principal cellist Jordan Dyck in Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C Major. Also Mozart’s Serenade in D Major (Posthorn) and Garland by Canadian composer Linda Caitlin Smith (winner of the 2005 Jules Léger Prize for New Chamber Music). For more information, visit

May 17: Universal Brotherhood presents the world premiere of A Northern Quest by Prince George composer Simon Cole with soloist Marion Newman. Choirs from across northern BC will also perform Beethoven’s Symphony number Nine in D Minor, held at Prince George’s Vanier Hall, 8 pm. For more information, visit

June 14: The Terrace Symphony Orchestra performs its Season Finale Concert at Knox United Church at 8 pm.