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Can a symphony survive the Digital Age?Posted: June 30, 2012

Perceptions by Gerry Warner

It was a night to remember.

For the first time in a long time the rains held off, the sky cleared and there was cottonwood fluff floating in the air as more than 500 Cranbrook area folks gathered June 22 at the St. Eugene Mission Resort for the final season performance of the Symphony of the Kootenays.

It was called “Music in the Mountains” and there couldn’t have been a better setting with snow-streaked  Mt. Fisher rearing up like a giant pyramid overlooking the musicians and the jagged spires of the Steeples and other Rocky Mountain peaks serving as a dramatic background for the show.

Rain had fallen earlier in the day and there was some concern in the air that the performance would have to be moved indoors, which just wouldn’t have been the same. But with the sky clearing and the sun lighting up the historic steeple of St. Eugene Church the decision was made at 6:30 p.m. to go ahead outdoors and the orchestra assembled in front of the ancient residential school, once a repository of painful memories for the Ktunaxa people but now a symbol of restored pride.

And as the memorable evening of music unfolded the sense of pride and satisfaction only grew greater as the orchestra appropriately broke into its opening piece, John Burge’s “Rocky Mountain Overture.”

For this participant, the highlight of the evening was Ktunaxa member Joe Pierre Jr.’s rendition of one of the many Ktunaxa myths and legends with the orchestra accompanying him in the background and for all intents and purposes sounding like the wily pack of coyotes that Joe was spinning a tale about. Where else but St. Eugene could you have an experience like this complete with a cacophony of sounds from a professional orchestra?

At the conclusion of the concert, Conductor Bruce Dunn praised the musicians and thanked the audience profusely and expressed his fervent hope that the amazing St. Eugene concert could become an annual event. His comment drew a large round of applause from the highly appreciative audience and there was little surprise about that.

But can this really happen?

As most of you know, the Symphony of the Kootenays, an institution in this neck of the woods for almost 30 years, is on life support. Indeed, “Music in the Mountains” almost didn’t happen as the Symphony of the Kootenays Society almost dissolved a few weeks prior to the show with a new board elected at an emergency meeting June 6. Even this wasn’t enough and it took an eleventh hour grant from the Vancouver Foundation to provide the money necessary for the season’s last performance.

I don’t know the details, but I’m told some real machinations occurred before the Vancouver Foundation grant was secured. Phew!

Whatever the case, the question now is what’s the future for the Symphony of the Kootenays? Does the Symphony of the Kootenays even have a future?

Not if the concert audiences in Cranbrook stay around the 250 level, says photographer and music aficionado Rod Wilson, who knows much more about these matters than yours truly. A typical Symphony of the Kootenays concert costs more than $20,000 to put on because the orchestra draws from a pool of musicians from all over the East and West Kootenay and Southern Alberta which makes travel and rehearsal costs exorbitantly high. Wilson also makes the point that audiences have lost interest in listening to live music thanks to technological innovations like Itunes, Ipods, cheap CDs and the like. Just another tradeoff as the Digital Age takes over society.

Personally, I think Wilson’s points have merit, but I’m not quite ready to give up. As proof, I point out the 3,500 tickets sold for the Bob Dylan concert here demonstrates that interest in live music is hardly dead. And I would also point to the success of the Music in the Mountains Concert.

Something happened that evening and it was magical. People love live music and technology will never destroy it.

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