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Tens of thousands gather for Victoria Symphony's Splash Around Town finale, bringing 'joy and community'

The Inner Harbour was packed with people on Sunday night, enjoying the music of La Nef, Steven Page Trio, and the Victoria Symphony, and the spectacle of a fireworks show. If there was concern about a low turnout, it quickly vanished.

Tens of thousands of people braved the late July heat Sunday for the final day of Splash Around Town, the re-imagined version of the Victoria Symphony’s Symphony Splash, which was staged on land instead of a barge floating in Victoria Harbour.

Attendees set up umbrellas, flocked to patches of shade or simply sat under the heat of the sun on the lawn of the B.C. legislature for powerful folk songs from La Nef, a sea shanty ensemble founded in Montreal whose traditional folk performances evoke both the loneliness and joy of life at sea centuries ago.

The sea shanties were followed at 7:30 p.m. by the Steven Page Trio and the Victoria Symphony. And in Symphony Splash tradition, the evening ended with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (abbreviated to the booming parts this time), fireworks, and bagpipes.

After a two-year COVID-19 hiatus, an issue with stage insurance meant a shift from sea to land for the event’s return, and some mourned the format of festivals past, which saw huge crowds gathered around the Inner Harbour and in various flotation devices on the water to catch the show, performed on an industrial barge-turned-floating-stage.

“It’s a different perspective, but it’s pretty impressive,” said Victoria Symphony CEO Matthew White. “When you get to the end of the night people are going to be able to look up at the [legislature] building and this big stage. I think they’re going to really like it.”

Sara Plumpton set up a canopy tent for her family on the legislature lawn on Sunday. In 30 years of in-person Symphony Splash events, she had only missed three or four.

“I love the live music, I love that they do standards that everybody recognizes. I love that they end with the 1812 Overture and live cannon all at the same time, with fireworks,” she said.

“I love a live experience. I’m so grateful they are back up again and doing it. But I want it on the barge,” she said with a laugh.

Plumpton’s mother, Susan, who was mid-Scrabble game beneath the tent, enjoyed seeing the joy music brought to the children at the event.

“It’s really nice watching the children respond to the music,” she said. “The children respond so naturally and the fluidity of a child’s movements to the music – and their interpretation – it’s just lovely. You’re sitting in your chair thinking, I wish I could still do that!”

Aside from the new venue, the festival expanded from one day to five and included a number of free performances at the Cameron Bandshell in Beacon Hill Park, where music-lovers enjoyed a diverse ensemble of musical performers from outside of the symphony world, including Oji-Cree indie-pop-rock artist Aysanabee, Afro-Cuban pianist Pablo Cardenas, Balinese ensemble Gamelan Bike Bike and Romanian folk group Steluţa.

White said it was rare for a performance to draw fewer than 300 or 400 people. On Saturday evening roughly 900 people came to the Cameron Bandshell for the Celtic Kitchen Party with La Nef members.

“There’s a really diverse offering we’ve put on the table this year and it was really exciting to see how many people showed up,” White said. “That was what the whole festival was about really. It was trying to remind people of the joy and the community that is formed when people get together to listen to great music.”

The legislature performances were a capstone to the re-worked festival, and the new stage location didn’t deter Penny and Chris Philpotts, who live in James Bay and frequented the Symphony Splash prior to COVID-19. They said this year was the first time they were able to put their chairs in a good spot for the show.

“This seems to be working well,” Penny said. “We were amazed when we came here. We didn’t think there would be anyone here but it’s just filling up like it used to.”

White said the Victoria Symphony is undecided on where the event will take place next year.

“If we feel it was a big success, maybe we’ll do the same thing again. If you look out at the lawn here you can tell how much space there is and that’s an opportunity for a really big crowd to join in here,” he said. “I think a big thing about a great festival is it should feel inclusive and accessible.”

By the time fireworks were lighting up the sky above the Inner Harbour, thousands more had joined the crowds on Belleville and Government Streets.  

In an email, Plumpton would later say she was disappointed with the finale and the “cut down version” of the 1812 Overture. She had also hoped for more from the symphony, which played during the Steven Page Trio performance. 

“This is great if one likes the artist in question and has come to listen to their music, but if, as I did, people came expecting to hear the symphony play everything from Strauss to Star Wars, we were disappointed,” she said.  
ngrossman@timescolonist.com 

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