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Music director bows out

Don James announces his retirement new leadership and the suspension of Symphony Orchestra Academy of the Pacific
Laura Walz

A Powell River cultural institution will soon have new leadership with the retirement of the founder and music director of both Powell River Academy of Music and International Choral Kathaumixw.

Don James, who first arrived in Powell River in 1973, has been at the centre of the academy, founded in 1982, and Kathaumixw, which started in 1984, as well as scores of other musical events. He, along with Terry Sabine, the academy’s administrator, are retiring in 2014.

Walter Martella has been appointed music director of the academy, effective January 2013, and Paul Cummings has been appointed artistic director of Kathaumixw, effective September 2012.

Both James and Sabine will work part-time in 2013 to help ease the transition. The academy will announce the appointment of a new administrator in the near future.

James said it was time to retire. “We’ve been working here since the beginning,” he said. “We have some really talented people here, so we thought now is the time.”

While he admitted to mixed feelings, James also said he has many interests. “We’ll travel, we’ll work on some of our hobbies and we’ll still be around, so we can jump in and help out where it’s needed,” he said.

Sabine said retirement is exciting, but also scary. “I think we’re very fortunate in the people that we have. I feel very comfortable that they will carry on and we’ll just be out the back door and nobody will even notice that we’re gone. It’s important that the academy carry on.”

Martella, a graduate of University of Victoria, Malaspina University and the BCCF (BC Choral Federation) conducting program, is a founding member of Powell River Boys’ Choir and one of the first members of the faculty of the academy. He is a pianist, trumpeter, accordionist and conductor who works with children’s and adult community choirs as well as community bands.

Martella said he feels excited and nervous at the same time. “I’m really thrilled and honoured that they’ve given me the chance to do this,” he said. “Quite a few things I’ll have to learn how to do, but I’m looking forward to it.”

Martella also said he is looking forward to working with Cummings and pointed out they both attended Grief Point Elementary School. Cummings, 48, was a few years ahead of Martella, who is 44, but they overlapped for a few years at the school. They both had James as a music teacher at Grief Point, then at Oceanview Middle School and Max Cameron Senior Secondary.

Both Martella and Cummings said James was their inspiration and mentor. “I learned a lot, because a lot of the skills that I’ve picked up aren’t things you can pick up even in school or practicing or opening a book,” said Martella.

Cummings, a founding member of Powell River Youth Choir, is the recipient of BC Music Educators’ 1995 Outstanding Music Educator Award. He has degrees in music and education from University of British Columbia and a masters in choral conducting from Western Washington University in Bellingham. He currently teaches music at Brooks Secondary School and the academy.

Cummings said he was honoured to be taking on the role with Kathaumixw. “Actually, when Don and Terry first mentioned it to me, I just had a lump in my throat and said I had to think about it, because it seemed like such a huge, huge task,” he said. “I didn’t see it coming, either.”

After he spoke to family and friends and reflected on the offer, Cummings said he came back and told them that yes, he would be interested in the position. He has been involved in every Kathaumixw since the beginning, he said, when he was a timpanist in the orchestra in the first festival. “I’ve seen it grow and I’ve seen it morph from what it was back in 1984 into what it is today.”

Cummings has experience with organizing festivals, international travel and being part of a choir that goes to someone else’s festival. “I think, and hope, I can see it from both sides, from the groups that are coming to us and also from an organizational standpoint,” he said.

While the appointments of Martella and Cummings are exciting, the academy also announced that it is suspending the 2013 season of Symphony Orchestra Academy of the Pacific (SOAP).

The academy has been struggling with SOAP for a few years, James said, and it’s become a financial burden. Absorbing the losses  affects the school and could affect Kathaumixw.

The academy’s board of directors has a committee that has worked on the issue for a few months, James said. “If we could find $100,000 or $150,000, we could continue, but that kind of money is hard to get,” he said. “With the downturn in the economy, it was even harder this year. We took a larger loss this year than other years.”

While it’s disappointing, the academy is also seeking other festivals that may fill the gap, but in a different way that may be more affordable, James said. “We have three groups already making presentations to the board and also one that thinks they have ideas where SOAP could be viable,” he said.

SOAP has been a huge cultural success for the community, James added, and for everybody taking part. “It’s just too bad that there isn’t the money out there to support it from the government’s side and the private side.”

One of the problems is that the Canadian government at the federal level deals with professional artists and SOAP participants are advanced students, James pointed out. “They do have an orchestral training program at the national level that’s fully supported by the government, so they don’t do other ones,” he said. “Not only do Canadian students get a full ride with the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, but they also receive a $1,000 scholarship at the end of it for their further studies. We can’t compete with that at all.”

BC’s government looks at provincial content, James explained. “If you look at BC content, the SOAP orchestra has about five to eight students out of 70 and they can’t really rationalize it. The funding that Terry was very successful at getting in the beginning has been reduced every year because of the provincial component. The students in BC who could qualify are heading off to Ottawa to play in the National Youth Orchestra.”

While those factors work against SOAP, the program itself is top notch, James said. “We were grateful that we could take a stab at it and try to do it, but the bottom line is the bottom line.”

Sabine said the decision has been the hardest one they have ever had to make. “We’ve tried for nine years and it’s just not getting any better,” she said. “We need to do something different.”