My Canada, 61/150: Waterloo bands play on

When the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony looked like it was going in implode in 2006, I remember thinking: they won’t let it happen. People in Waterloo County won’t let that happen.

Waterloo County, or Waterloo Region, is in southern Ontario and drew many German immigrants: a 2006 Statistics Canada report on ethnic identity for the region reveals the top three responses were English (121,475), Canadian (119,860), and German (116,795). No other group is in six digits in the “total answers” column, which adds together people who chose one response and people who chose multiple responses to reflect their hyphenated heritages.

I learned as a university student that Germans-from-Germany did not put classical music in a precious-and-elite jewel box. Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Bach — many of the greats of the Romantic, Classical and Baroque periods were from Germanic countries. While travelling in Europe one spring with a friend of German heritage, we visited many of her relatives. One lovely older couple had been factory workers and, when we had dinner at their house, they put on a Mozart recording. For them, it was their country music.

Almost every community in Canada has some form of musical tradition, from church choirs to marching bands. Playing the piano or fiddle was a skill cultivated to provide home entertainment in a pre-electronic age. But the volume of music-making in Waterloo County could be heard across the country.

Much of that volume in the first part of the 20th century can be credited to Charles F. Thiele. Of German heritage, he was born in the U.S. and was a musician and composer of note when he moved to the Waterloo area in Canada in 1919 to escape anti-German sentiment, according to an article written in The Record. (Note that it must have been pretty bad in the U.S., remembering that Waterloo County was, itself, a place of great tension between its English-origin and German-origin citizens during the First World War. Its largest city, Berlin, in a wave of controversial patriotism, changed its name to “Kitchener”, after a British Field Marshal who was killed in the First World War in 1916, near the time when the community was voting to select a new name.)

Thiele founded the Waterloo Music Company in 1922, which thrived for many years selling sheet music and instruments. I remember going there frequently as a kid to pick up piano music and, in high school, my own mouthpiece to use with the school-loaned trumpet I played in school band. Thiele became leader of the existing Waterloo Music Society, The Record tells us, and raised its profile by founding “the enormously popular Waterloo Band Festival, Canada’s biggest, which attracted tens of thousands of visitors every summer right up until the late 1950s”.

The Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony formed right after the Second World War, in 1945, as an orchestra to accompany the Grand Philharmonic Choir, founded in 1922 and still going strong.

The symphony had its golden age in the 1970s, when the affable and ambitious conductor Raffi Armenian took the podium. The symphony’s official history tells us that, “as the longest serving Music Director [until 1993], he had a profound and lasting impact on the organization: his position as Music Director for the Stratford Festival brought about the creation of the Canadian Chamber Ensemble, which attracted professional musicians to the orchestra. Armenian was also key in developing the Centre In The Square [concert hall], working with revered acoustician Russell Johnson to ensure that the building and acoustics were of the highest quality. Maestro Armenian’s tenure saw the KWS evolve into a fully paid professional orchestra with a core of 52 musicians that toured across Canada, Europe, South America and Asia, and made numerous recordings including several Juno Award nominations.”

By the mid-2000s, however, things had fallen apart. One conductor had left abruptly, someone else was filling in, and there was “turmoil” and “division”. When someone’s corporate website uses words like that, you know it was beyond ugly.

Many orchestras across North America have struggled with solvency; classical music is expensive to produce and audiences have, in some markets, shrunk significantly. The Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony waved the bankruptcy flag in 2006, stating that the organization needed an immediate infusion of cash, or the orchestra would collapse.

Waterloo Region without a symphony? For enough people, that was not a life worth living. Collectively, they coughed up $2.3 million within a short period of time, allowing the symphony to stabilize, hire a new conductor, and carry on.

No orchestra in our modern age can know for certain if they will survive long term. But there is a high concentration of Germanic music roots in Waterloo’s soil that feeds music-making of all kinds, from the quirky KW Chamber Music Society to community concerts at venues such as the Elmira Gore Park Bandstand, built in 1912 and restored in 2012 by the local Lions Club.

To the Waterloo music-makers, past, present, and future: Prost!

Main photo: Elmira Gore Park Bandstand by Kelley Teahen.

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