Music Man of Sooke

By Judee Fong

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Conductor Norman Nelson

Prominent Conductor Norman Nelson had planned to retire his baton in Sooke, BC. His vision of tying some flies and spending his days fishing lasted a week. Norman recalls, “Sue Innes-Martin use to play for me in Edmonton. She asked me to listen to a Sooke group she plays with and when I did, I was extremely surprised.” When asked how he let musicians know he was forming an orchestra, Norman says with a smile, “I didn’t; I was roped in.” Today the Sooke Philharmonic Orchestra (SPO), with 60-80 members, led by Maestro Nelson, is filling the Sooke hills and Greater Victoria with their music.

Norman didn’t begin violin lessons until he was 10, preferring to perfect his cricket and tennis games instead. At 15, a scholarship to London’s Royal College of Music changed his focus. London Philharmonic, BBC Symphony and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras added to his experience and knowledge. His fame grew as a violinist and conductor, performing in major cities around the world. Immigrating to Canada, he continued conducting, playing and teaching in Vancouver and Edmonton. He formed chamber music groups including the “Purcell Strings” and the student string orchestra, “Academy Strings.” His extensive contributions to the Canadian orchestral community were recognized with the prestigious Orchestra Canada’s Betty Webster Medal in 2007 and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012.

Norman constantly seeks ways in which to bring classical music to the public, while giving young musicians the experience of performing with an orchestra. He encourages young talent to compete in the annual Don Chrysler Concerto Competition in April. Traditionally, the winner is the guest soloist for the October concerts. Sue Innes-Martin, Principle Second Violinist reveals, “Sometimes Norman will see someone who didn’t win but has that special something and he’ll include them in the concert, too. Norman has an unerring eye in picking out talented musicians.” Some past soloists include Nikki and Timothy Chooi, Grace Ma, Phillip Manning and, recently, Alice Haekyo Lee.
Decades of playing and conducting has honed Norman’s instinctive understanding of how a particular piece should be played. Everyone agrees his descriptive words are effective in expressing how he wants the music played. Concertmaster Anne McDougall gives an example. “Norman would tell us, ‘I want this to sound misty and really light. I want feathers on the bow.’” Laughing, Anne recalls, “One year, the students presented him with a bow of feathers!”

Viola player Michele McHattie says, “With 60-70 musicians, Norman has an uncanny knack of zeroing in on the things that would make a difference. He has this intuitive sense of making a great concert, not a mediocre one. I think our performances are known for their spirit.”

SPO recently played the difficult Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra,” with not only strings, but also woodwinds, percussions and brass playing a kaleidoscope of Hungarian emotion, colour and rhythm.
“I wanted to offer our audiences an opportunity to hear this unique and passionate concerto,” says Norman. “Normally, community orchestras wouldn’t have this on their programs, but I knew we could do it.”

SPO Acting President/Volunteer Bob Whettit agrees. “The Bartok concerto is very demanding and challenging, requiring a lot of extra rehearsals and practice. It was played so beautifully and effortlessly. You had to be there to hear it.”

Sue Hyslop, SPO’s Past President/Volunteer, often thinks of Norman as Sooke’s “Pied Piper” because many well-known musicians, past colleagues and former students willingly travel to be in one of Norman’s concerts or participate in the annual May Chamber Music Workshop.

“We are very fortunate in having the enthusiastic support of the Sooke Community, but it is Norman and his wife Jenny, whose hard work, ideas and energy inspires everyone,” says Sue.
Norman’s work with musicians of all ages, reveals a man who lives life to the fullest, knows his music, has a loyal following and shares his knowledge with enthusiasm and humour. Anne McDougall recalls her Edmonton winter escapes to Point-No-Point, near Sooke. She would look up Norman to play in his orchestra. One year, Norman said, “No, because the musicians must make all the rehearsals. You only do one or two before leaving.” Disappointed, Anne retreated to her cabin, playing her violin to the seagulls, until an unexpected call from Norman. “You brought your violin didn’t you?” And I said, “Yes.” “Sue Innes-Martin just fell down the stairs and broke her ribs. We have a concert in two days and we need you to lead the second strings.” I still remember saying at intermission, “I thought you said I can’t play because I didn’t come to all the rehearsals.” And he said, “You put something in Sue’s drink, didn’t you?”

Principle Cellist Trevor McHattie calls Norman a “larger-than-life” character, who has worked with famous musicians all over the world, yet retains a personal connection with everyone he meets.

“Music is his passion, but in his rare leisure moments and if they’re in the same part of the world, he and violinist Pinchus Zukerman have been known to play some challenging games of ping-pong!”

Celebration of Young Artists Concert is at Sooke Community Hall on Saturday, October 25 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, October 26 at 7:30 p.m. at Farquhar Auditorium at University of Victoria. See their ad on page 36 in this issue.
For more information on tickets and future concerts, call 250-419-3569 or email
Check out their website at




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Showing 1 to 1 of 1 comments.

A wonderfully written, descriptive article! The writer makes one feel they can actually hear the orchestra!

Posted by Darlene Chan | October 3, 2014 Report Violation

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