A Jazzy Journey to the Classics

By Judee Fong


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Photo by: Sandy Henderson

When Sidney formed their Art Council in 1992, the township had some funds for a music program. They approached Stephen Brown, classical composer, conductor, Victoria Music Conservatory teacher/adjudicator/examiner and member of the Bastion Jazz Band, about what to do with the money. Without hesitation, Stephen replied, “Let’s start an orchestra!” And the Sidney Classical Orchestra (SCO) was born.

As Artistic Director and Conductor Stephen provides a warm friendly program of classical music for people of all ages in Sidney and the Saanich peninsula. However, many SCO supporters from other areas gladly travel to hear the concerts, too. One of the goals of SCO is to encourage and provide opportunities for young people to enjoy and participate in classical music.

“Victoria Conservatory is full of talent and SCO has two or three chairs earned by students who can play as well as any professional musicians,” says Stephen.

Also, each year, notices are sent all over Vancouver Island for young musicians to apply and audition for one of the five to eight coveted youth soloists spots in one of SCO’s concerts.

Stephen’s musical odyssey began at 13. “I hounded my parents for an electric guitar,” he says. “My brother was already playing acoustic and steel-string. I tried the rock ‘n’ roll thing, but I didn’t play the guitar well then.”

As a college student, he was exposed to all types of music: country, blues, R&B, as well as jazz, classical and rock ‘n’ roll, but he was already gravitating to classical. At 22, Stephen decided to do something with his life and music was the one thing he cared about next to his family. He bought a piano and took lessons. Three years later, he became a full-time student at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory.

Stephen had his initial introduction to New Orleans jazz in the 1970s. He had a young family, driving taxis and going to school.

“A jazz band in Toronto needed a piano player,” he recalls. “To earn extra cash, I played weekends and stayed for a couple of years.” Driving taxis and playing jazz fueled his determination to complete his music education.

“It was hard work as I was an older student, but I felt I was in the right spot for who I am,” says Stephen. “The more I learned, the more I was convinced this is what I wanted to do.”

It is this passion that reaches his students at the Victoria Conservatory of Music where Stephen teaches the language of music: harmony, counterpoint, analysis and composition. Although he enjoys playing piano and guitar in his leisure time, Stephen candidly admits, “I conduct and compose classical music. I enjoy playing piano for myself but to become a Chopin takes a special skill and years of training.”

Some musicians are amazingly talented to compose music they hear in their heads with specific instruments playing their part. “I wrote a piece in 30 minutes for a string quartet and piano. When I wrote it, I knew what it would sound like without having it played first. Other times, composing can be more difficult when the initial attempt produces only garbage.”

His numerous compositions include a symphony, a piano concerto, two overtures, two suites for orchestra and six suites for cello. Many of Stephen’s pieces have been played by the Victoria, Vancouver and Toronto Symphonies. One of his past students, Hannah Addario-Berry, a prominent cellist, has recorded some of Stephen’s cello compositions.

Smiling impishly, Stephen recalls an earlier memory of travelling in a Toronto snowstorm to the rehearsal of his first symphony composition: “At that time, I was driving a rolling ghetto, a Ford Maverick with all kinds of rusty holes. I had filled the holes with old socks and roller-painted the car baby blue. The back quarter panels had been glued together with roofing tiles and we had stuffed blankets in the trunk to stop the gases from coming in. I didn’t know the quarter panel had separated, opening up a huge gap at the bottom of the car and this bright orange blanket had fallen through.”

“Part of the blanket had caught on a rusty nail and I was dragging behind me – a 10-foot orange blanket all the way through downtown Toronto in a snowstorm. I pulled into the parking lot of Roy Thompson Hall, filled with expensive cars and found a space between a Rolls-Royce and a Mercedes. My wife and I had someone waiting to guide us to the rehearsal room, but my car had ‘run-off’ — that’s when the ignition is turned off but the car still rumbles and snorts for about five minutes. Our guide couldn’t stop laughing at this whole scene.”

As for his symphony, Stephen says, “It was about nine minutes of rehearsing my symphony in starts and stops before the actual concert. I remember asking the conductor, ‘My God, what does it sound like?’ and he replied, ‘I don’t know, ask me after tonight!’ The Toronto Symphony performed it beautifully.”

In his leisure time, Stephen indulges his love of jazz playing guitar, piano and doing vocals with the popular Bastion Jazz Band. His band-mates Denny Box, drums, Eugene Dowling, tuba, Alf Sleigh, trombone, Aaron Watson, guitar, accordion and saw, plus Alfons Fear on trumpet get together every Saturday night at Victoria’s Ocean Island Backpackers’ Café for a lively jam session of jazz, blues, country, R&B and more.

“Classical music is my first calling because it’s what I do,” says Stephen. “I teach it, I write it and I conduct it. Jazz is what I play on my days off. That’s when I play piano and guitar for my enjoyment.”

Sidney Classical Orchestra: www.sidneyclassicalorchestra.ca
Email: info@sidneyclassicalorchestra.ca
For tickets and schedule: 250-480-1133
Bastion Jazz band: www.stephenbrown.ca

MARCH 2014 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE

 

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