Whenever You’re Near One, You Hear a Symphony

A series celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Symphony of the Kootenays, and Cranbrook's orchestral history

Cranbrook’s earliest orchestras  were not oversized by any means. – Herald

Cranbrook’s earliest orchestras were not oversized by any means. – Herald

Jim Cameron

The Symphony of the Kootenays celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, a remarkable achievement for any group in any town in any genre of music.

That there have been rough spots and hard times for the symphony goes without saying. That the countless musicians, volunteers, subscribers and financial backers have managed to surmount the obstacles and keep the music playing for four decades is nothing short of a minor miracle — but they have and this year the orchestra will once again grace the Cranbrook stage, instruments glimmering, reeds glistening, music lights aglow.

The Symphony of the Kootenays was by no means the first orchestra in Cranbrook, depending, of course, as to how one defines the word. An orchestra is nowadays generally considered to be a collection of instruments containing representation from the brass, woodwind, string, and percussion families. Accordingly, a ship’s bell, a Basque hornpipe, a diddley bow and a tin pan would fit the bill, and probably have, considering the many groups that have appeared under the banner of “orchestra” over the years.

It is generally conceded that an orchestra should not just be varied in terms of instrumentation but should also be large in number and dress in suits and gowns and play classical music and be attended by people who pay attention and remain sitting the entire time and clap in the right places and mostly stay sober and, along with the musicians (who must also pay attention, if nothing else), conduct themselves with an air of gentility and musical comprehension. Well, that’s the general aim, anyway.

Not all audiences follow those guidelines of course, nor do all orchestras. Orchestras have produced violence and riots and destruction just like any other self-respecting musical genre but, in the main, they aim to propel the listeners to a higher plane with follow-up discussions as to the attributes of the music and musicians being the only point of conflict.

In that regard, the Symphony of the Kootenays has performed admirably in brokering much discussion and keeping violence to a complete minimum, with the exception of the percussion players of course, who take great pride in beating the bejeepers out of every inanimate object they encounter (and here it must be noted that, in 1904, local merchant G.T. Rogers advertised a six pound drum container of laundry starch complete with a pair of drum sticks “for the boy” which certainly didn’t help things).

The Symphony of the Kootenays — known as the East Kootenay Chamber Orchestra for its first two decades — has provided a vast variety of music over the years, covering all eras of classical music and featuring a multitude of talented performers.

Yet, though we celebrate the achievements of the present-day orchestra, it is perhaps best to place things in context and to consider the history of the orchestra in the city of Cranbrook over the last 117 years.

One of, if not the first, mention of a Cranbrook orchestra appeared in the Herald newspaper on August 25, 1904, and read: “John Wright, orchestra manager. Music furnished for balls, parties, etc. Two to seven pieces.”

The following week the same ad appeared under the heading of “Wright and Millward’s Orchestra.”

Not necessarily an expansion of the band, as it still boasted two to seven pieces. It was apparently an expansion of the management team prepared to take a cut in return for supplying musicians with work. The word “agent” comes to mind.

On September 22, an editorial in the same paper stated: “Cranbrook can now boast of the best orchestras in the interior of B.C. Their music is like a dream and those fortunate enough to have heard them are delighted. The town has long bemoaned the fact that it had no orchestra and now it has one of the best. It costs money and untold labor to keep an orchestra in shape, so the people should always have a word of encouragement at home and abroad.”  Fine words, indeed.

Putting their music where their mouth was, the Wright and Millward Orchestra’s first public performance took the form of a dance on the evening of October 8, 1904, in the hall of the Wentworth Hotel. “The music will be the best and everything will be conducted in a manner to give all a pleasant evening,” stated the Herald.

How many played in the orchestra? How many showed up to listen? It is unknown. It does appear to have been the first and last performance of Cranbrook’s first orchestra. Alas, the dream was over.

Well, the first dream, anyway. In fact, for Joseph Millward, sign writer, age approximately 49, life was over the following March when he died in Nelson of a brain tumour. Of Wright, little else is known. A rather disheartening finale for the progenitors of Cranbrook’s first formal musical ensemble but, when you get right down to it, it was really just a dance band anyway.

As far as real orchestras go — bypassing McHenry’s Orchestra of 1907, consisting of piano and drums, and Professor Salmon’s Orchestra of 1908, consisting of coronet (trumpet), violin and drums, both of which were obviously much too abbreviated for our purposes — the first actual, reasonably large, brass, woodwinds, strings and percussion Cranbrook Orchestra was formed in 1911 to accompany local actors in the musical “The Geisha” performed for two nights at the old Cranbrook Auditorium which, it should be noted, was also Cranbrook’s first major amateur musical production.

It was these intrepid musicians who initially, if only temporarily, set the stage now held by the present day Symphony of the Kootenays.

Next week: You Hear a Symphony, Part II.

Jim Cameron is author of Janus: Cranbrook Then and Now, Volume I, on sale at various locations in the Cranbrook area, including the Daily Townsman