Carols by Candlelight continues holiday tradition

Annual Powell River Academy of Music event celebrates festive season

Now in its 39th year, Carols by Candlelight has evolved from a single afternoon concert with Powell River Boys Choir to a two-day, multi-choir Christmas tradition with tickets selling out months in advance. The annual event returns to Dwight Hall on Friday, December 8, and Saturday, December 9.

Choral conductor and former Powell River Academy of Music director Don James, who started the boys choir in 1974, developed the original concept for the event. He said he was inspired by Christmas choral traditions in the United Kingdom.

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“I was always interested in the King’s College Cambridge Choir’s Lessons and Carols under the direction of Sir David Willcocks,” said James. “That was really the inspiration for the event.”

James said the first Carols by Candlelight concert took place on a Saturday afternoon at Dwight Hall.

“We didn’t have tables; we probably had a candelabra or two,” he said.

In those early days, the music academy rented a piano from Port Alberni. As the event and the academy grew, it was able to buy a piano and add more choirs, instruments and tables.

Powell River Academy of Music director Walter Martella was an original member of the boys choir; he joined at age seven. Martella took over responsibility for the academy, and Carols by Candlelight, when James retired in 2014.

“This event is Christmas for me,” said Martella, “I’m always excited to be part of it and grateful for the opportunities and mentoring Don has given me.”

Martella said he tries to instill the historical significance of the concert tradition to the young singers he teaches.

“I always tell the students that this has been going on since I was a kid,” said Martella. “I want them to understand they’re part of something that’s really rich in so many ways, musically and community-wise.”

Academy Chamber Choir member Tina Crookshank started in the academy’s training choir at age five under the tutelage of then-conductor Susan Hoekstra. She credits Hoekstra for her lifelong interest in music and performance.

“She touched a lot of people,” said Crookshank. “That’s when my love of music started, with that very first choir.”

After moving away from Powell River, Crookshank said she was unable to find anything similar to the choir programs elsewhere.

“I tried finding it in other places I lived and it just doesn’t exist,” she said. “When I came back, being able to be involved with the academy was one of the most wonderful things.”

Crookshank said the highlight of the concert is performing a particular Christmas carol.

“When we sing ‘O Holy Night’ and it’s dark with the candles all around, and the acoustics in Dwight Hall are just amazing, it makes you feel so blessed to be around so many friends in such a beautiful venue,” she says. “You just appreciate everything about Christmastime.”

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