A HISTORY OF THE VICTORIA SUMMER MUSIC FESTIVAL
by Dorothy Mindenhall
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Victoria’s summers were alive with musical events. The Victoria International Festival and the Johannesen International School of the Arts brought renowned musicians and students from around the world to produce exhilarating performances. All this ended after the untimely death of the driving force behind these institutions, J.J. (Joseph Jean) Johannesen, in 1994. His organization mounted a 1995 season, but this was the last.
It seemed that the summer of 1996 would be silent from the close of the Eine Kleine Summer Music festival, in June, until the opening of the Victoria Symphony season in September. Local musicians had relied on the performance opportunities provided by J.J.’s organization, and Times Colonist music critic Deryk Barker had relied on any number of musical events to enjoy and comment upon. Alarmed at the prospect of a silent summer, Barker wrote to all the local musicians he could muster, suggesting the creation of a new, local festival. The proposal met with general approval from the musical fraternity, both performers and supporters.
A group of “organizers” was dragooned to bring this new festival to life. They met one evening and set in train what was to become the Victoria Summer Music Festival (VSMF)—in fact, the name was decided on at this meeting. Roles and duties were assigned—Dorothy Mindenhall, president; James O. Young, vice president; Anna Rochfort, treasurer; Amanda Spencer, secretary and lawyer; and Amita Modi, director. It was a lively meeting with much to resolve—funding, venue, program, volunteers, advertising … the tasks seemed endless.
Resulting from this meeting, James Young, president of the Early Music Society of the Islands (EMSI), generously offered seed money from EMSI. Local graphic designer Miriam MacPhail agreed to design the advertising brochure and posters pro bono in exchange for two tickets for each concert. Dianne Pearce, who managed the volunteers for the Eine Kleine festival, agreed to do the same for VSMF. Amanda Spencer arranged for the festival to become a non-profit charity, thus encouraging donations. The Victoria Summer Music Festival Society was incorporated on May 14, 1996. Phillip T. Young, bassoonist and teacher, who was chair of the UVic School of Music from 1969 to 1977, was approached to be the festival’s patron. He declined due to ill health but wrote an enthusiastic letter of support and wished the festival success.
In the early years, the members of the board of the Festival often decided what the repertoire would be and approached local artists to perform. The first season featured a concert of works of the French Baroque on period instruments, led by Martin Bonham and co-sponsored by EMSI; Yariv Aloni, Andor Toth, and Bruce Vogt performing works by Brahms, Mozart, and others; “Summer Serenade,” with works of Kreisler, Debussy, Noel Coward, and others, performed by the Esterhazy Salon Orchestra; and the McPherson Trio presenting an all-Russian program, including works by Arensky and Shostakovich.
Brochures were printed in time for distribution at the last concert of the Eine Kleine season, and the first concert was given on Saturday, August 10, 1996, in the church of St. John the Divine on Quadra Street. While the up-front costs of advertising, hiring the church, etc., were covered by the seed money, the musicians had to be paid at the conclusion of the concert, and there was not enough in the bank. So, as the concert proceeded, Amanda and Dorothy sat in the back pew and, as silently as possible, counted the cash from the box office, breathing sighs of relief when they found there was enough to pay the performers. The festival was in the black and a critical success—planning for 1997 could start.
For the 1997 season the festival moved to the Phillip T. Young Recital Hall at the University of Victoria. This venue had better sightlines, lighting, acoustics, and parking, was accessible, and was available during the summer months, and it has continued to be the festival’s home.
Also starting in 1997, and for the next twenty years, a highlight of the festival was Basses Loaded. This concert, programmed by the world-renowned solo bassist Gary Kerr and pianist Harmon Lewis, gave students at KarrKamp—a summer camp for student bassists from all over the world—a performance opportunity at the close of their studies. And it was a huge hit with audiences.
As the years progressed, the festival cemented its position in Victoria’s musical calendar. Acclaimed pianist Arthur Rowe became the festival’s first artistic director for the 2009 season and has continued in that role to this day. With access to more nationally and internationally renowned musicians, Arthur has brought many to the festival for their Victoria debut, and continues to build on the early success, giving the region’s music lovers summer concerts to look forward to.