Westben Celebrates 20th Anniversary!

The Link, Spring 2019
| by Joanne Culley |

Professional musicians Brian Finley and Donna Bennett were living and working in London, England, and had been away from Canada for about three years. Brian was performing in piano competitions in Europe while Donna was singing opera with various international companies.

“We became pregnant with our son Benjamin and we thought, let’s go home,” says Donna Bennett, Co-Founder. “I had grown up on a farm in Campbellford and we decided to go back as my parents still lived there.”

The couple occupied themselves with teaching in the area and performing locally as well as across Canada. During the summer of 1997, with some friends, they had the idea of staging the musical Jesus Christ Superstar in the barn for fun. They were astounded that 150 people wanted to be in the cast and that 2,000 people came to see it.

“That summer was so inspiring – we were amazed there were so many people interested in singing and attending the performances,” says Bennett. “The following year we staged Sound of Music, and we’ve grown every year since then.”

“Over the twenty years since it started, Westben has staged approximately 400 concerts…”

Westben was incorporated as a not-for-profit in 1999 with a board of directors and the following year they built a new 400 seat barn/concert hall.

“On our opening day, July 1, 2000, there was a full symphony orchestra, chorus and international soloists. When Brian walked on to the stage, the audience gave him a standing ovation before the concert even began!” she says.

Over the twenty years since it started, Westben has staged approximately 400 concerts featuring several hundred performers including top Canadian, international and local artists. They have sold more than 91,000 tickets to about 9,000 annual audience members and worked with over 10,000 learners.

In 2013, they partnered with the Trent Hills Municipality to create the Clock Tower Cultural Centre in Campbellford, where their box office is located, and from where they now offer year-round programming with more educational and community engagement activities such as pay-what-you-can lunch concerts.

Education has been a main component of Westben from the beginning and they now have five choirs for those aged 4 to 80 and four concert bands, as well as residency programs for artists.

“Last year we held three residency programs – partnering with such groups as a children’s arts camp, OCAD University and Toronto’s Tapestry Opera, where artists came to create, explore, and perform,” says Bennett.

Westben is presenting an exciting line-up of concerts for their 20th anniversary season starting with ‘From the Top!’ on June 2, featuring music and guests from their past nineteen seasons, along with all the Westben choruses and a special alumni choir.

The celebrations continue all summer, with performances in a variety of genres including comedian Brent Butt of Corner Gas fame on July 12; pop indie performer Bashia Bulat on July 5; First Nations tenor, composer, and Polaris Prize winner Jeremy Dutcher on August 2; the ABBA Mia Broadway Revue from July 17 to 27; and The Snow Queen by the Canadian Children’s Opera Company on July 7.

Their annual jazz weekend features the Juno Award winning Matt Dusk Sextet on August 3 and Sophisticated Ladies on August 4 with Sophia Perlman, Barbra Lica and the Brian Barlow Big Band. Check out their website (listed below) for all concert and event information.

“Our aim is to have our audience members interact with the music. Last year we experimented with a series of events to expand the concert experience – we called it ‘Dare to Pair,’ with wine, food and an opportunity to talk to the artists,” continues Bennett. “It was so successful that this summer we’re going to have more unique experiences – ‘Chocolate Voices with Centre & Main Chocolate and Chris Cameron’ and a ‘Secret Concert’ which will be a mysterious adventure.”

Bennett says they will continue to be an incubator for the arts, bringing people together through music in their newly named Westben Centre for Connection and Creativity.

“Westben is an incredible community effort. We owe our success to our staff, volunteers, board of directors, performers and audience members who all work together to make it happen,” says Bennett. In 2017, both Bennett and Finley were honoured for their efforts by receiving the Order of Canada.

Joanne Culley is an award-winning writer and documentary producer living in Peterborough. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Peterborough Examiner and Kawartha Cottage magazine. Additionally, she has published a book Love in the Air: Second World War Letters.

Westben is located in Northumberland County near Campbellford. For the full season line-up, subscription information and to purchase tickets, call 1-877-883-5777 or visit westben.ca

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