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Kamloops Symphony Orchestra to go with professional musicians

The era of community performers on stage with the KSO in formal concerts is ending

The Kamloops Symphony Orchestra will go on without community players as it moves to fully professionalize, no longer inviting community musicians to play in formal concerts.

KTW obtained a copy of a letter from the KSO, sent on Oct. 7 and signed by board president John McDonald, music director Dina Gilbert and executive director Daniel Mills. The letter, addressed to community musicians, explains that the 2022-2023 season will be the final one in which they are invited to play in formal concert settings.

“We genuinely and profoundly respect the role that community musicians have made in making this orchestra what it is today, and we are so grateful for those contributions. However, we also have a responsibility to act on our mandate, create an equitable environment as best as we can, and think to our future,” the letter reads.

The letter also acknowledges that communication with community musicians during the pandemic has “not been sufficient.”

One of those community musicians is cellist Michael Powell.

Powell, 83, has been part of the orchestra since it began. His uncle, James Verity, was the founding music director of the KSO in 1976. Powell also played for many years alongside his wife, June, 91.

The cellist is also a founding member of the Kamloops Brandenburg Orchestra, which he said started in his living room one evening following a potluck. He also a member of the Thompson Valley Orchestra.

Powell said he knew the orchestra was moving toward using professional players, but noted he is still disappointed with the change.

“For me, it’s a very bittersweet story. I have to understand that things develop, things change, the union is involved in the symphony now. So, the community player is sort of put aside,” Powell told KTW.

The cellist played in formal concerts up until the pandemic and he plans on playing in the KSO’s final concerts involving community musicians, which are planned for May 10 to May 13 in 2023.

“To me, that’s kind of a finale for what has been a family affair,” Powell said.

In 2018, the KSO formalized a collective agreement with the Vancouver Musicians’ Association, a local of the American Federation of Musicians. That agreement was extended for another three years this past June.

Mills said the signing formalized practices that had been in place since the mid-2000s, when the push to professionalize began. He said almost all orchestras in Canada are now unionized.

The KSO started as a community orchestra and later began inviting professional musicians to help lead certain sections. Over 20 years, Mills said, that process continued and led to a change in the format of the orchestra.

“Following that, what has essentially happened, musicians have either moved away, stopped playing, couldn’t keep up or otherwise left the organization — and the ratio of professional-to-community musicians was much higher,” Mills said.

He noted the list of community musicians invited to formal concerts has been fairly small in the past decade, with no more than 10 players on stage at any given time — most of whom had been playing their roles for years.

Mills said the pandemic accelerated the process when gathering restrictions were put in place and the use of volunteers was limited, prompting the symphony to enter the final push to using professional players exclusively in formal concerts.

Typically, the KSO, which is in its 46th year, invites 40 to 45 professional musicians to play in each concert.

A criticism sometimes raised is that many of the players in the symphony are not from Kamloops.

Mills likened the orchestra to a sports team.

“We always hate to make the sports analogy, but if you look at the Kamloops Blazers, most of the Blazers are not from Kamloops,” he said.

The letter from the KSO also points out other opportunities for community musicians to continue playing.

“As we’ve evolved over almost 50 years now, that’s why other community groups have stepped in to fill the place, such as the Thompson Valley Orchestra, who just had their 25th anniversary this year,” Mills said.

He said the symphony was lucky to continue with two fairly normal seasons during the pandemic, the first being digital only.

“This year, it’s much more about trying to get back to the big audiences we used to see,” Mills said.

“We’ve seen an uptick, even from our first concert this year until now, but it’s still a challenge, just as it’s been for arts organizations across the country.”

Powell, who won the Enduring Supporter Award at the 2020 Mayor’s Gala for the Arts, said he will continue to be involved with the symphony through its Pro-Am Jam events, one of which is scheduled for March 2023.

Powell said he will also continue playing in the Brandenburg and Thompson Valley orchestras.

“The symphony has improved from the time we started and I’m glad to see that,” he said. “But I will miss playing with my friends.”