This year marks a milestone for Powell River’s robust music community; Powell River Boys Choir celebrates its 45th anniversary.
The program was initially formed in 1974 by Ken Peterson, Don James and Harold Carson. Boys aged seven to 12 were invited to audition, recalls Walter Martella, one of the choir’s charter members.
“I had to sight-read some music, and I remember it being in latin,” he said.
Today, Martella is artistic director of Powell River Academy of Music, having taken over the role from James, academy founder and artistic director emeritus. Martella said the early music training he had with the choir was formative to his future career.
“Music has been a part of my life since then,” he said. “All the languages I’ve learned, the culture and connections with people I still have now, it’s amazing. I feel lucky.”
Another charter member, Tobin Stokes, now works as a composer based in Victoria.
“I auditioned and got in. I was the youngest member,” he said.
The choir began rehearsing and soon started touring.
“Our first tour was to Sayward, BC,” said Stokes. “That’s when we knew we had made it.”
After Sayward, the choir toured to Victoria, Seattle, Montreal, Europe and Mexico.
James took over as conductor in 1975 and in 1978, the choir won a national CBC Radio competition for amateur choirs, beating out groups of all ages. James said he was inspired by Vienna Boys’ Choir and Sir David Willcocks’ Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.
“I thought if kids aged seven to 12 can sing professionally like they did, if you got a group together and trained them they should be able to do it,” said James. “So we did the training and sure enough it didn’t take them long to make a mark.”
Powell River Girls Choir started up in 1977, followed by youth choir in 1980. In 1981, Powell River Academy of Music was officially founded. More choirs were added, including an apprentice choir, academy singers, academy chamber choir and in 1999 Chor Pacifica Men’s Choir (now Chor Musica), initially comprised of employees of the Pacifica Papers company.
The singing groups gained national and international recognition through 26 concert tours, television and radio broadcasts in Canada, USA, Mexico, Hungary, England, Finland and Japan, and through CBC and BBC amateur choir competitions.
Under the direction of James, the choirs became known for the technically challenging music they mastered, including pieces by renowned avant-garde Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer.
“I proved to myself that talent is inherent in everybody if you get the right training,” said James. “It was just as easy to teach kids good repertoire as it was poor repertoire. If it’s taught in the right way, kids will learn.”
Martella took over conducting of the boys choir in 1992 and for the past few years it has been led by Matthew Hull.
For Stokes, looking back on his early choir days brings a smile to his face.
“I just remember it was a lot of fun,” he said. “We all felt privileged on those tours. We all felt grateful to be a part of it.”
Seeing James conduct gave him inspiration, he added.
“It set me on my path,” said Stokes. “I didn’t know there was such a thing as being a composer yet, but I knew because of watching [Don] there was such a thing as a music teacher, so I always said all through elementary school that I was going to be a music teacher, because I wanted to be like him.”