By Jane Deacon
After the devastation of the June 20 flood set in, there came a point where Michele Wheatley-Brown decided that the High River Gift of Music Series should be cancelled this year.
With their venue, the High River United Church, badly affected by the floodwaters and many of the town’s residents facing the destruction of their homes, it seemed as though it would be best to put this year’s five scheduled performances on hold.
“I actually phoned our first musicians and cancelled,” said Wheatley-Brown.
“And then after we poked our heads above our basement debris and mud, we thought this is really, really important that we do this for our community because we’re going to fall apart if we don’t have something other than a flood meeting to come together for.”
Within the last two weeks, Wheatley-Brown has returned to organizing the festival and has the 2013-14 lineup reconfirmed, with the first show set for September 15.
The High River Gift of Music Series began seven years ago, with the idea of bringing internationally renowned classical musicians to audiences in rural Alberta. It began small but has since grown into an annual series of five concerts, featuring a diverse lineup of world-class performers. Wheatley-Brown calls it a true community initiative, with a local board of directors and volunteer team, and small-town touches, such as free homemade cookies at every show.
“It’s very much a community coming together,” she said.
The flood has brought a set of challenges to this year’s series, including the loss of the original venue and many of their promotional materials, which were destroyed in the flood.
But a turning point came when Wheatley-Brown was able to secure a venue space at the Highwood Golf and Country Club, which will host the concerts until the United Church reopens. From there, she and a team of volunteers are working hard over the next few weeks to get the final touches completed and the series underway.
Bringing a classical music series to a small town in Alberta is something Wheatley-Brown — a classical musician herself — takes great pleasure in, calling it one of the most rewarding experiences of her life.
“People who have never listened to the genre are so excited and love it,” she said. “And they’re so engaged the whole time. It’s probably one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. People are so moved, they’re in tears by the end of the performance.”
Wheatley-Brown is particularly excited by this year’s lineup, which will begin with performances by two up-and-coming talents, which is a tradition for the series. Violinist Colleen Venables and cellist Tate Zawadiuk, both 17, have received prestigious accolades and awards, and will perform in High River on September 15 at 3 p.m.
“Our tradition is that we start with really young, incredible Canadian talent. It’s a really neat way to open our series,” said Wheatley-Brown.
While all five of the performances will be stellar, she said, one of the most notable artists is Jane Coop, a pre-eminent Canadian pianist who will perform in January.
Other performances will include a showcase of a 2,000-year-old Chinese instrument by the Yadong Guan Trio; a Baroque Christmas-themed show by Ensemble Caprice with soprano Dawn Bailey; and a high-spirited, innovative performance from bassoonist Nadina Mackie Jackson and Guy Few, who plays multiple instruments — sometimes simultaneously.
At a time of heartbreak and struggle for many High River residents, the Gift of Music Series will offer an opportunity to come together as a community and rebuild, said Wheatley-Brown.
“Music expresses things that we can’t articulate. I think that we have all gone through incredible emotions. Everyone in our community has had a life-changing experience. I think more than ever that music is going to speak to us. It’s music that will help to define what we’ve gone through and make some sense out of this time.”
For more information about the High River Gift of Music Series, visit www.highrivergiftofmusic.com. Seasons passes and tickets are available online, and are also sold through Colossi’s Cafe in the Charles Clark Medical Centre. With funding from TD Bank Financial Group, tickets are available to youth under 18 for $5.