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Striking a Chord Online: Westben’s Digital Concerts at The Barn

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Photo credits: Stephen Dagg

It’s been a while since I had plans on a Saturday night. That gives logging into Westben’s free Digital Concert at The Barn a real sense of occasion, even though the New Orford String Quartet would be a treat at any time. Made up of principal players from the Montreal and Toronto symphony orchestras, the group is widely considered one of the best chamber ensembles in Canada. Coupled with the acoustically unique venue just outside Campbellford that is Westben’s timber-frame barn, my first online concert since social distancing began is set to be a real listening experience.

I can’t see my fellow audience members, but before the show begins on YouTube the chat is full of lively greetings – a hello from Campbellford, a hi from Warkworth. Then, in the digital equivalent of the lights dimming, handsome drone footage pans over the Westben property and Westben’s Artistic and Managing Director Brian Finley appears to give some brief listening notes. I’m an avid music listener but classical isn’t my genre, so the context is helpful. The quartet will be performing the third movement from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132, AKA the Holy Song of Thanksgiving. Composed as Beethoven was convalescing from a long illness, it was chosen specifically for its resonance in the COVID era.

I’d wondered how a live stream would deliver the high-fidelity audio material like this demands, but it turns out the performance is pre-recorded. The decision ensures the nuances are captured: I can see the concentration on the faces of the players, watch the delicate tremolo in their hands. I hear air in the violins and feel the resonance of the cello. Though I can’t be physically present in The Barn, the lofty ceiling and rough-hewn timbers still convey a powerful sense of mood. For the next twenty-five minutes, I’m under the spell.

A week after the premiere I catch up with Brian Finley over the phone to discuss the experience of moving live performance online. As one of the co-founders of the Westben Centre for Connection & Creativity through Music, along with fellow musician and life partner Donna Bennett, Finley has decades of experience orchestrating shows. No one’s dealt with a season quite like this one, though. Westben has built a reputation for its pastoral setting and uniquely rural performance space. How does that translate in virtual terms? Are visitors still getting the flavour of The Barn?

“Oh, I hope so! That certainly is the goal,” Finley says, laughing. His perspective is refreshingly upbeat – although the artists may not be getting a charge directly from their audience, he thinks the venue itself provides something similar. “The feeling is one of oasis for an artist. It’s very soothing, it’s very open, it’s very beautiful. You have that big acoustic because you’re in a performance place.” For musicians like the players in the New Orford String Quartet, the energy comes simply from being together. “You know, string quartet music is such an intimate experience. These guys typically play hundreds of concerts, and they develop such a close physical connection amongst them all. And they just haven’t had that. So when they have a chance to come together to do that, it’s a very special experience.”

Nothing is very far removed from the COVID conversation these days, but I genuinely felt the relevance of New Orford String Quartet’s choice of music. Finley points out that the Beethoven piece starts with a kind of ambient stasis before the rising action makes itself felt, like a musical echo of the cultural moment. It seems other listeners are responding well to the Digital Concerts project, too. “There are two kinds of audiences that we’re developing. One is our regular clientele that are used to coming and they’re just so happy to be back and a part of The Barn,” Finley says. “Then the other side of the audience is people who are just discovering Westben for the very first time, and that’s just thrilling… For me, these digital concerts have been one of the most rewarding things from an artistic point of view. It’s sad to not share it with more people live, but we’re sharing it with exponentially more people digitally.”

The Digital Concerts at The Barn series began in April of 2020, with fresh releases slated until June 5, 2021. They run the gamut of genres from classical to experimental, with many stops in between – the June show is folk trio The Good Lovelies, for example. Online premieres make for great appointment viewing, but after the debut the videos remain available, free of charge, both on YouTube and Westben’s own digital venue.

Finley calls the latter “a digital manifestation of The Barn,” worth checking out in its own right. It’s presented as a map rather than a menu, and if you’re really missing a trip to The Barn, you can trigger field recordings from around the property and just enjoy the ambience. Westben has a knack for adding that kind of grace note – click around a bit and you’ll find podcasts featuring interviews with visiting artists, and short videos featuring chefs from local restaurants. “That’s a really interesting thing to round out the whole experience by connecting people further with our setting and with our place. The one little step further is just with the people in the place, you know? What they bring to it, their passions for this place and their joy in doing what they do here.”

The goodwill is reciprocal, with sponsors, donors, and a supportive membership keeping the music going. One of the most ambitious projects in the works is further development of the virtual performer-composer residency, a month-long experiment in music making and international community building. No longer tied to the physical landscape around Campbellford, growth has been exponential. “This went completely digital last year, and it just exploded… there were 61 participants from ten countries that were involved in this thing. They created thirteen world-premiere pieces which we premiered digitally,” Finley says. With the next round of applicants set to debut their work the week of July 26, his excitement is obvious even over the phone. “It was actually phenomenal during the social unrest of the last year to have something that brought all of these different cultures together through music and through creation, and through dreams of the future, through sharing people’s lives and their circumstances and their countries, their places and their cultures. It was just – it’s such an amazing project.”

For many, the COVID era has been a lesson in inertia and uncertainty. It’s reassuring to hear Finley and the rest of his organization sounding optimistic and undiminished. A composer himself, he’s kept busy as a solo pianist. “You can say this beautiful thing in so many different ways. And that’s what I love. It doesn’t always have to be the same way,” Finley says about the diversity of artists who’ve performed at Westben. Sitting in the online audience, it rings true for me too.


Watch the New Orford String Quartet’s concert here.

Click here to watch Westben’s Digital Concerts at The Barn, and visit Westben.ca for news and updates.

\Looking for more virtual experiences in Kawarthas Northumberland? Read about Lang Pioneer Village Museum’s Virtual Q&A program here.

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