Westben Celebrates 20th Anniversary

This year, Westben will celebrate 20 seasons of Concerts at The Barn. Westben has presented close to 400 concerts featuring several hundred performers including top Canadians, international artists and local musicians. They have sold more than 91,000 tickets and worked with over 10,000 learners. Annually, they attract about 9,000 patrons from across Canada and beyond. In addition to a wide range of classical, jazz, Broadway, folk, fun and fiddle music, Westben has mounted 14 operas (including two world premieres) and 10 musicals (including five world premieres) and welcomed some of the world’s best from Gerald Finley, Angela Hewitt and the Canadian Brass to Peter Appleyard and Oliver Jones, Tafelmusik, the Vancouver Chamber Choir, Colin Mochrie, Sarah Harmer and many more. In the past seven seasons alone, Westben has mounted 22 off-site productions throughout Trent Hills, in Kingston, Peterborough and Toronto.

Westben grew out of the meeting between its co-founders and an eager, rural community located in south central Ontario. Having lived in Europe for several years, Donna Bennett and Brian Finley returned to Donna’s hometown of Campbellford to have their first child. They began performing together across Canada. They also started teaching.

Then in 1997, Finley and Bennett got together with the energetic local community to mount a fully-staged production of Jesus Christ Superstar. In an effort to coordinate and perpetuate these activities, Westben was formed, incorporating as a not-for-profit in 1999 and receiving charitable status in 2000. They presented their debut season of Concerts at The Barn in a brand new, 400-seat, timber-frame barn which Donna and Brian built with the help of the community. In 1999 there was just a cornfield but by July 1 st, 2000 there was a rustic but sophisticated concert hall.

The timbers took three months to carve Didier Swartz and were erected in a day and a half onto a concrete floor prepared by Nicholson Brothers. Volunteers put up the locally milled siding and refurbished the theatre seats which were bought from Market Hall Theatre in Peterborough.

“It was an incredible community effort,” says Co-Founder Donna Bennett. “July 1, 2000 was the opening day of Westben and we featured a full symphony orchestra, chorus and international soloists. I’ll never forget when Brian Finley, Westben’s Co-Founder and Artistic & Managing Director, walked on to the stage the whole audience stood up and gave him a standing ovation and this was before the concert began. Everyone there knew the incredible community effort if took to make this happen. It was evident that people were thrilled to welcome this new gathering space to the community. The Barn wasn’t entirely finished yet. In fact, not all the doors were even on, but it was an amazingly joyful day.” Donna and Brian received the Order of Canada in 2017 for their work through Westben.

Westben’s cultural impact has been noted locally, provincially and nationally. But it also has significant economic impact. Based on our activity, the Government of Ontario estimates that Westben is directly responsible for more than $600,000 coming into the local economy each year.

In January 2018, Westben announced that the Board of Directors tabled a new Strategic Plan reimagining Westben as a Centre for Connection and Creativity through Music. While it’s true Westben has presented a lot of incredible music over the years, the real focus has always been on bringing people together through music. The new Westben Centre for Connection and Creativity Through Music opens the door to many possibilities such as year-round programming at the Clock Tower and other venues as well as The Barn, more educational and community engagement activities as well as the new Residency Program which invite artists and groups to create and develop new work.

In 2018 Westben held three Residency programs. Locally partnering with a Children’s Arts Camp called Artworth. On a provincial level they worked with Ontario College of Art and Design and Toronto’s Tapestry Opera. They also had international outreach with the new Performer-Composer Residency where over 12 Performer-Composers, chosen from 40 applicants from around the world, spent a week creating, exploring, sharing and performing music. “The concept of a Centre has many exciting facets, says Finley, “it’s a convergence of people and ideas flowing in and out. It’s a physical place where people meet. It’s a state of mind suggesting balance.”

A year of celebratory events are being planned and Season 2019 of Concerts at The Barn have been announced in December. Highlights include an Anniversary Celebration Concert, classical artists such as Canadian violinist James Ehnes, Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, opera star Joyce El-Khoury, Canadian Opera Children’s Company, as well as Fiddle with the Fitzgerald’s, a World Orchestra called Kuné, the jazz star Matt Dusk, award-winning folk artists Rose Cousins and percussion sensation British Columbia’s Scrap Arts and many more.

The popular Broadway revue is called ABBA Mia, featuring the songs of Mamma Mia and other ABBA favourites. 20 years for an arts organization built from a cornfield is an amazing accomplishment. “It has taken a lot of hard work, laughter, great musicians, community partners and love to bring it together,”says Bennett. Find out what their anniversary year has to offer at www.westben.ca.

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