50 years of the Victoria Conservatory of Music

The Victoria Conservatory of Music is a place where teachers teach, students learn and novices grow into professionals.

In some ways, it mirrors the city itself. As Victoria shifts, expands and adapts to changing climates, so does the conservatory and its curriculum.

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From its beginning in 1964, with just eight students and a single classroom, the conservatory has grown into a vibrant hub of musical activity, boasting more than 4,300 participants both serious and recreational, 130 faculty members and thousands of alumni, some of whom will return and volunteer their time for a concert and gala on May 31 celebrating the conservatory’s 50th anniversary.

The list of former students scheduled to appear next weekend is impressive. Richard Margison, Benjamin Butterfield, Jonathan Crowe, Eve-Lyn de la Haye and Marc Destrubé, among many others, will take the stage together for the first time, providing a once-in-a-lifetime showcase.

“We’re so proud of our alumni,” said conservatory CEO Jane Butler McGregor. “They are a testament to the excellence of the work we do at the conservatory. The fact that so many of them are coming back to share in our anniversary is absolutely wonderful.”

Butler McGregor, who has been with the conservatory since 2008, is hoping something else shines through over the course of the event. After a few rough financial years, which nearly shuttered the organization six years ago, the tenor around the conservatory these days is one of unfettered optimism. That’s an important piece of the puzzle, she said.

The former interim executive director at Pacific Opera Victoria, Butler McGregor was brought in when the organization was on the brink of closing its doors. Quickly, she was moved by the passion of its staff, students and faculty. “As I got to know the organization better, and realized what an important organization it is in the community, [I knew] if it could be saved it was so worth saving.”

Budget caps and strategic plans were quickly installed, along with a new management team and board of governors. Once operating and mortgage costs were in order, the difficult task of reducing expenses while increasing revenues was tackled. The school managed the tricky feat through tuition growth and fundraising, Butler McGregor said, including the creation of its now-thriving children’s music department. “That was absolutely critical,” she said.

“Once you expose children and their families to music, and families see the value that music brings to your lives, they become your future students.”

The conservatory’s family atmosphere has been a priority since the beginning. Alix Goolden was the engine behind its arrival, raising the profile of the school among the community. The school increased its visibility over time with help from a series of key supporters, including Eric Charman and Goolden’s daughters, Ann Nation and Gillian Nelles. The husband-and-wife teaching team of Robin and Winifred Wood also played a significant role, and have been credited by many former students as the single biggest factor in their development as musicians.

 

Robert Holliston, who was a young music-theory student at the conservatory in late 1960s, took lessons from the Woods, who left their posts at the prestigious Royal Academy of Music in London to join the conservatory in 1965. Holliston eventually graduated from the conservatory’s piano-teacher training program in 1977, and in 1988 was made a faculty member. The current head of keyboard at the school, he has seen and done plenty over his career as an educator and performer, yet the role of the Woods in his life inside and outside of the conservatory was significant, Holliston said.

“They taught generations of piano students, but they were also the cement that held the conservatory together during all sorts of ups and downs. When you have things like the Alix Goolden Hall and Wood Hall [the conservatory’s two performance halls], that alone indicates the extent to which those families have helped.”

Early on, the conservatory was located in a two-storey Pandora Avenue office used previously by a labour union. Incorporated in 1964 as the Victoria School of Music, it became a conservatory in 1968.

It was housed for years in Craigdarroch Castle and St. Ann’s Academy before moving, in late 1999, to the former Metropolitan United Church — an eye-catching building at the junction of Pandora Avenue, Johnson Street and Quadra Street, which gave the conservatory the high-profile frontage it long desired.

That the conservatory was able to flourish during its years of uncertainty and change is a remarkable achievement made possible, in large part, by the citizens who support it.

The amount of competition in a city this size — from five Greater Victoria orchestras to multiple opera and ballet companies — is daunting. But the conservatory stayed the course, with help from its supporters. The conservatory’s current dean, Stephen Green, a trained musician who arrived at the school two years ago following a decade as the executive director and dean of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, noticed immediately the level of support Victorians offered the conservatory.

“It’s a testament to the focus on culture and the support for the arts here in Victoria,” he said. “People aren’t homebodies. They like to get out.”

Since 1978, classes in the music department at Camosun College have been run in partnership with the conservatory, from which students of the two-year program will receive a diploma in music. Coupled with the voluminous courses and programs offered in addition, from music therapy to music theory, there are few corners the conservatory does not reach, including daycares and community centres.

As a result, the range of its students is staggering, Butler McGregor said. “Believe it or not, our youngest student is four months old and our oldest student is 92.”

That scope is likely to expand further in the coming months. Announcements expected this week will prove “that we are completely committed and ready to bring more music to more people in our communities,” she added.

Holliston is certain that no matter where new direction sends the school, the result will be of value to both its students and staff.

“Most, if not all, scientific studies which have addressed this will emphasize how important music is in the development of one’s intellect, one’s mathematical skills, one’s scientific acumen,” he said. “There is nobody who will say music is an unimportant part of anyone’s education.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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