All across Canada, the last weekend in July is a bank holiday–that is, the banks and governmental services shut down for a three-day weekend. But in Victoria, it’s more than a three-day weekend. It’s Symphony Splash weekend, this year nicely timed for the day after my birthday, which made me feel even more celebrated.
OK, really, they’re celebrating B.C. day, honouring their province, and this year the 100th anniversary of B.C. parks. But I felt honoured, too. (When in Canada, we spell in Canadian.)
Imagine 40,000 people gathering outdoors around Victoria’s Inner Harbour to watch the diminutive Victoria Symphony play their hearts out (all 54 of them–I counted) under the direction of a small woman on a barge, for heaven’s sake. They’ve done this for 21 years in what has to be one of the biggest outdoor concerts on the West Coast of this continent. Rock concerts don’t generally attract that many people.
Did I mention that they play the Splash on a barge?
And the musicians parade across the grounds of the Parliament building in Victoria, led by the Canadian Scottish Regiment Pipe and Drum Band, through the crowd, down the causeway and climb up stairs (some of them with upright basses) to the stage. On a barge.
It looked rather like the hovering barge in the second “Star Wars” movie that Luke and Han used to spring Princess Leia from the clutches of Jabba the Hut. Only it was tethered in a seemingly too small space in a very tight harbour that made Dick and me say to each other, “How did they get that in there?” (Dick, by the way, who covered the Splash as if he was still working for a paper, while I sat in the bleachers. Whadda guy.)
This is even more impressive to someone who mourned the loss of the symphony in her town when it disbanded in 1997. We live in the capital city of California, and we can’t field a symphonic organization like this. And though a newer orchestra has regrouped in Sacramento, the Philharmonic is indeed smaller and plays perhaps four concerts a year.
The Victoria Symphony, in a much smaller city, just performed ten concerts over twelve days, culminating in The Splash. This year they will perform 200 times, an astonishing number for any musical organization.
And all this in a city of about 330,000 people. (Sacramento has three times the population.) Plus the Victoria Symphony (known as VS, for short) sponsors concerts for kids, a new composers workshop for young people, youth volunteers as well as adult ones, young performers, a speakers bureau and (this is my favourite) an instrument petting zoo. You can go pet a clarinet, if you like. In public.
So they put on this big pops concert, and Dick sprung for the expensive seats in the bleachers set up on Belleville Street in front of the Parliament building. It was very festive–lots of Victorians out and about waving free little B.C. flags, wearing temporary B.C. flag tattoos, and sporting moose ears in honor of the parks’ 100th anniversary.
People everywhere. Ev-ree-where. And, this being Canada, one of the most polite huge crowds you’ve ever seen. Apparently, on Canada Day (July 1), the crowds have gotten rowdy and in some cases violent, breaking store windows even. But on Splash Day, all was genteel. People even shut up so we could all hear the orchestra play a nice program of mostly pops music. Really. Very little crowd noise.
The star of the evening was an 11-year-old violinist named Alice Hayeko Lee, who wowed 40,000 people with the first movement of the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1. She looked pretty cute onstage in her little white dress with pink sweater (and orange tennies, which maestra Tania Miller pointed out to the crowd). From the first notes of that concerto, Alice had our attention, and we all forgot how cute she was and listened instead to a young master coax stunning music out of her instrument.
The orchestra also debuted a new piece by an 18-year-old composer, Jared Richardson, called “Winds of Kananaskis,” a county outside Banff National park in Alberta. Seventeen years old. He composed it when he was 15, just one of 70 pieces he’s written.
The concert ended with a very show-offy finale that never fails to please even the most clueless or the most jaded about classical music: the 1812 Overture, complete with cannon and fireworks.
It’s hard not to get jazzed when the sky is shot through with color and the orchestra swings into the final part of that number–the chimes chiming and the trumpets blaring. People were on their feet cheering and stomping their feet, whistling. It was a happy group of people, lemme tell you, their problems forgotten for an evening of great music with their community.
This is what music does, if you let it. It can grab you by the ears and say, “Listen. Feel this.” People who have never experienced a fabulous symphony orchestra miss this. The people of Victoria get it.
And, not incidentally, by 8 a.m. the next day, the barge had disappeared from the Inner Harbour, as had all the signs and bleachers. Dick went on walk-about and took photos to prove it. There was not a speck of garbage anywhere on the lawn of the Ledge in front of the Parliament building. Some 400 volunteers did that. This is Canada. They clean up well and fast here.