The Westben Centre for Connection and Creativity Through Music has a reputation in this region. The mixture of high-level talent performing original productions in an eye-catching venue has drawn audiences for nearly two decades now, and each season typically ends on a high note with a festive Christmas celebration. The closing show of 2018 was “The Little Drummer,” featuring local musician Jordan Mowat and Westben’s in-house choruses. I caught the first performance of the run on Saturday, November 24, and couldn’t have imagined a better way to kickstart the holidays.
It was my first visit to Westben, though I’d often heard the name. The Centre (formerly known as the Westben Arts Festival Theatre) has hosted performers as diverse as Sarah Harmer, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, the Montreal Jubilation Choir, and comedian Colin Mochrie. Though Westben offers programming at multiple venues, the largest and best-known is their 400-seat timber frame barn. Supported by impressive hemlock and fir beams clad in locally milled pine, you’d be hard pressed to find a more harmonious match with the landscape. It’s an acoustically excellent space, with high ceilings allowing the in-house Festival Chorus’ vocals to soar. Affectionately known as the capital-B Barn, it pulls double duty as a modern performance venue and as a tribute to Ontario’s rural roots.
In summer months the doors stand open to allow fresh air and ambient sound to become part of the experience. The doors were closed during “The Little Drummer” to keep the heat in. The cup of hot cider I was served at the door and the warmth of a full house and festive spirits kept me toasty throughout the performance. Artistic Director Brian Finley authored and introduced the show, with Westben co-founder Donna Bennett handling conducting duties. Both Finley and Bennett earned the Order of Canada in 2017 for their contributions to the arts, which gave me some indication of the level of craft I was about to witness. That and the eighty chorus members on stage told me I was in for a treat. The score of “The Little Drummer” is a mixture of original and classic songs. Opener “Christmas in the City Really Makes Me Sick & Dizzy” took aim at the over-commercialization of Christmas, while tunes like “Santa Baby” and “Ring Christmas Bells” kept it quintessentially of the season. The choral duties were shared between the Westben Festival, Youth, and Teen choruses, offering a pleasing vocal range and presence that filled the beautiful, rustic venue. Interspersed with the music were short vignettes about a family that badly needed to pause, reflect, and practice a little gratitude.
Toplining the show was Jordan Mowat, an Ojibwe musician from Alderville First Nation. I found Mowat’s solo performances some of the most affecting moments of the afternoon. His spare drumming and plaintive vocals were the perfect counterpoint to the fullness of a choir. During his first appearance he played what sounded like a traditional Ojibwe round dance song, but on the second he performed in the same style with contemporary English lyrics. Both performances by Mowat were arresting in their simplicity and bracingly different from the familiar Christmas tunes. Mowat also proved a deft guitar player, singing his original number “Where Did I Go Wrong?” during a reflective pause in the action. Director Brian Finley describes the musical partnership as “welcoming, full of possibility and radiant with friendship,” which is apt.
As the story reached its conclusion and the central characters were coaxed into a more charitable view of Christmas, Mowat joined the choir. The sound of his frame drum added drive to the beautiful harmonies, and the show ended on an uplifting note. Watching the crowd drift out across the snowy, pastoral grounds seemed a fitting coda.
Westben’s 2018 season is over as of December 2, with details of the 2019 lineup to be announced in January. Speaking of Christmas, though, gift certificates and memberships are available now. Based on the performance I saw, tickets to Westben would be an ideal way to bring some music and creativity to someone’s new year.
Dooher’s Bakery: Voted 2018’s Sweetest Bakery in Canada in a nationwide contest, you need to try this family-run Campbellford bakery at least once. Just make sure to get there early in the day – their famous donuts always sell out early. Ranney Gorge Suspension Bridge: This 300’ long bridge passes 30’ above Ranney Gorge, offering stunning views throughout the year. If heights aren’t your thing, try the alternate access to Ferris Provincial Park. Either way, the surrounding trails and scenery are not to be missed. Centre & Main Chocolate: Located in Warkworth just 15 minutes from Westben, the artisans at Centre and Main realize not all chocolate is created equal. Their single-origin chocolates and unique chocolate barks will please the most discerning gourmand. The Bakery: This Warkworth business is committed to using local suppliers, making it the perfect place to stop for a taste of the region. Their butter tarts have won multiple awards and motivate people to drive great distances for these sweet local treats!