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Music by the Sea festival returns with 'intimate' musical experience

Reduced capacity makes this year’s fest "more of a privilege, a rare thing," organizer says
Festival organizer Christopher Donison, left, has brought Music By the Sea back to the Victoria International Marina for a series of in-person performances starting tonight. Darcy Beck.


What: Music by the Sea
Where: Victoria International Marina, 1 Cooperage Pl.
When: Jan. 11-16

A re-imagined Music By the Sea festival gets underway today, to the delight — and surprise — of its intrepid creator.

“We were waiting anxiously to see what would happen,” said Christopher Donison, executive artistic director of the popular classical- and jazz-themed event. “I’m going to be in there, even if I’m there all by myself.

Donison will have plenty of company, including audience members for the first time in close to two years. The pianist had the 15th edition of Music By the Sea ready for launch in August, but the festival was eventually postponed at the last minute, due to concerns over rising in COVID-19 numbers on Vancouver Island. Though active cases remain high, Donison is moving forward with his event at 50 per cent capacity, as per provincial health rules.

Nightly performances will be held at the Victoria International Marina, on the shores of the Songhees Walkway, through Jan. 16. Guests attending shows by the Borealis String Quartet, Aurora Piano Trio, Great American Songbook Trio, and others are required to show a valid vaccine passport, and social distancing is in effect, he said.

“It has worked out in our favour because when we postponed back in August we came up with the date to reschedule in January. And when we picked the middle of January, everything was at the 50 per cent capacity. We lucked out that we didn’t increase to 100 per cent when that was allowed.”

Music By the Sea has been held in both Bamfield and Victoria in recent years, after being based exclusively in Bamfield since 2006. Donison has been forced to pivot several times in his attempts to stage a full-scale version of his festival in the Inner Harbour. His initial plan of staging summer events in both Bamfield and and Victoria, with Victoria having its own unique winter event, is tentatively back on track after years of cancellations and postponements, he said.

The constant changes have given Donison the ability to produce Music By the Sea for smaller audiences, without sacrificing the quality.

“People are paying based on the capacity. It’s more of a privilege, a rare thing, to be sitting in this room with only 30 or 40 other people. There are some nights that it might be only 20 people in the audience. That just fine, the way I’m looking at it. It’s just going to make it a really special, intimate, quality musical experience for all the participants.”

The performers, some of whom are travelling to the event from Vancouver, have been more than appreciative, Donison said. He sweats over the details so they don’t have to.

“It’s rewarding to me just to do it, when you’ve got the wind at your back, and you’re inspired by stuff. I think our budget on these looks quite good right now, so I was able to call all the people in Vancouver that are coming over and I just increased their fees to accommodate a little bit of their travel expenses.”

Donsion ha been active on several fronts during the pandemic, both as a performer and festival programmer. He’s acquired a new set of skills as a result, which is putting to good use with Music by the Sea. He’s taking the event for what it is at this stage, not what he imagined it to be. That progression will come to fruition soon enough, he said.

“I think if I just sort of fast forward in my mind months and years from now, this one might stand out as a very memorable. I’m anticipating it’ll be very intimate. It’s a bit of a luxury. “