In 1998 when MacMillan Bloedel sold its Powell River operations to Pacifica Papers, the new owners had a vision that echoed the early days of the Powell River Company. Pacifica vice president Harvey Reithaug saw the unique culture of the community and the company tradition of sponsoring sport, art and culture. During the MacMillan Bloedel era, the mill strongly supported the founding of International Choral Kathaumixw in 1984.
Reithaug talked about the community tradition of choral music and decided he would like to form a company choir. He asked Dal Matterson, a retired mill employee and chair of the Kathaumixw festival to help him.
“Harvey gave me a call to organize the men’s choir,” said Matterson. “I was still Kathaumixw’s chairman then.”
Matterson contacted Powell River Academy of Music artistic director Don James.
“It was a great idea,” said James. “It was fantastic that the mill was willing to sponsor it.”
To recruit singers, Matterson said he got lists of surnames of mill employees and music academy participants.
“When the surname matched I would call the home of the mill employees and it was just huge fun,” he said. “Most of the time they would laugh and say ‘I don’t think so,’ but most would pause after a while and say ‘oh, that’s interesting,’ and things would happen.”
The group had its first rehearsal in 1998. Many had never sung before. Richard Olfert worked as accompanist and musical arranger and Steven Price as vocal coach.
“It was a challenge to get these guys with varying musical abilities in one room and get them singing,” said James, but he soon had them singing in four-part harmony. Reithaug was an enthusiastic member of the choir, he added.
“Bosses and guys who were down on the work line got to mingle and it did improve the whole atmosphere,” he said. “It was significant in that era of the mill.”
The group’s first performance was at the mill’s Christmas party that year and a regular routine of performances was soon established. Early on the choir began singing some of the late Canadian icon Stan Rogers’ music, and an original composition commissioned by Tobin Stokes.
“Hunker Down” tells the story of a stormy day, and what it means to the small coastal town of Powell River. It has become the group’s signature piece and a crowd favourite, and was even covered and recorded by a men’s choir from Spain, said James.
The choir’s first overseas trip was to Texada Island, where they were warmly received by an enthusiastic crowd in Gillies Bay Hall. Since then they have twice been invited to perform in the International Male Voice Choral Festival in Cornwall, England, and toured Yucatan, Mexico in 2013.
Since mill takeovers by Norske Canada and Catalyst Paper Corporation, mill sponsorship ended and the group is now open to membership from any interested men in the community.
After the Pacifica sponsorship ended, Pacific Coastal Airlines sponsored the choir from 2002 to 2007, with the music academy taking over after that.
When James retired, Walter Martella beame the choir director, and Nancy Hollman the accompanist. Choir members today range in age from early 20s to late 80s. Singers have joined the academy of music dream team, volunteers who help maintain the academy and work on the set up and running of all the academy concerts, projects and festivals. Many members are fondly remembered, including Reithaug, who passed away in 2015.
“The philosophy from Harvey was fantastic,” said James. “[The choir] has been a real boost to the whole town.”
Chor Musica Christmas takes place December 17 at 7:30 pm at James Hall.