Celebrating 75 years of music with the Kiwanis Music Festival

The Hopewell Jazz Band plays during the 2019 Kiwanis Music Festival. Courtesy Kiwanis festival.

Seventy five years ago, as the Second World War was drawing to a close, some people in Ottawa were thinking about the importance of music.

In that long ago spring, they decided they would organize a music festival that would allow young performers — and some older ones — to show off a happier skill.

The first gathering was called the Ottawa Music Festival and the competition lasted three days hosting performers on strings, piano and voice. The idea was greeted with interest in Ottawa of the day.

An advertiser in the first program of the festival noted that “government regulations on delivery, shortage of shipping materials, … labour, … (and) office help” had limited  public and commercial activities during the war. The festival signalled an end to that restraint.

Today the festival is called the Kiwanis Music Festival — NCR and it runs four weeks every April. The Kiwanis Clubs of the Ottawa area became involved in 1985.

Jadyn Lau performs on the French horn during the 2019 Kiwanis Music Festival.

There are more than 1,000 entries (with more than 2,500 individual participants) and the event is managed by a small part-time staff and more than 300 volunteers. Today participants are adjudicated in voice, piano, strings, woodwinds, brass, chamber ensembles, guitar, harp and music theatre. It also includes bands, choirs, orchestras and percussion.

Over the years, some famous Ottawa musicians have competed in the Kiwanis festival including Kerson Leong (violin) Bryan and Silvie Cheng (cello and piano), Angela Hewitt (piano), Daniel Taylor (counter-tenor), Julie Nesrallah (soprano and radio personality) and Gerald Finley (baritone) to name just a few. Hewitt, for example, started competing in the festival in 1965 in recorder, violin, piano and voice. By the mid 1970s she was focussed on voice and piano. Those years are today remembered as the Angela years when competitors were pretty much resigned to finishing second in those categories, says current Kiwanis executive director Kim Chadsey.

Gary Morton.

In the 2019 event, the festival said in a media release, young musicians offered some 2,000 performances in various disciplines. They competed for trophies and $40,000 worth of scholarships.

This week, the organization will celebrate 75 years of community building with a launch party on Oct. 18 in the Great Hall at Christ Church Cathedral, 414 Sparks St. 

Perhaps no one today knows as much about the importance of the Kiwanis festival as Gary Morton, who served as executive director for more than two decades.

In the mid-1990s, Morton was approached to head the festival. He was in the RCMP band for many years as a trombonist, but in 1994 the band was disbanded in a budget cut, so the festival came knocking on his door at a good time.

Morton, who is originally from London, Ontario has a degree in music composition from the Berklee College of Music in Boston. That degree was his ticket to a job in the RCMP band.

“I joined in 1972 and was there for 22 years. We were trained, but we didn’t actually experience police duties except during the Gulf War in early 1990s when band members were assigned to some protective duties.” Mostly they were full time musicians.

Morton has also performed around town in his own band called Stevenson & Kennedy, which was put on ice a few years ago. The community spirited Morton is active in Canada’s Capital Cappies each year.

“I’m not retired from music. I’ve just shifted. I’m in low gear now.”

When he took the Kiwanis job, he said he thought about it “for about two seconds and said ‘Yes.’

He stayed a long time, he said, because “I love seeing young people progress through life and there have been so many young kids who would show up at the festival when they are five or six and you watch them grow as people and as performers.

“There are so many of them out now in the professional life and there’s hundreds and thousands of them who are just enjoying music. Not everyone is going to be a star but the enjoyment never goes away.

“You get a better person because of it. You can’t be an individual in music.” You are always working with someone even if you are a soloist, Morton said. “It teaches you to get along with people. That’s also why I stayed. There are so many kids who have grown into beautiful people.”

Organizing a four week festival full of performances seven days a week in from 10 to 20 different locations each year is a bit like organizing a military campaign.

“You need to verify each location each year and make sure that the people who own the location — which are very often churches — are happy and we are doing the right thing.

“My mantra was always leave it the way you found it.”

The job of executive director needs commitment, he said.

Angela Hewitt, left, was competing in the festival from 1965 to 1975. She’s seen here in this clipping from the Ottawa Journal in 1972.

And it needs “somebody who understands the needs of musicians. I’ll give you an example: When you put out chairs for a soloist or a band they have to be armless chairs. It’s such a simple concept for a musician but someone who doesn’t know would not necessarily know arms on chairs get in the way.

“All the pianos have to be there. All the chairs and pencils, all that stuff. It’s impossible to do by yourself.”

His involvement in the festival has left him with many memories and many friends.

Silvie and Bryan Cheng. Photo: Uwe Arens

He remembers meeting Bryan Cheng for the first time when he was about four years old. His sister Silvie was already playing the piano and, Morton said, Bryan wanted to play something different. he finally accepted the cello and today he’s a world-class talent.

“When you participate in the festival, you make friends in music.” He’s still close to the Chengs.

He also recalled the time six year old Kerson Leong showed up for the highlights concert after each festival sporting a blue tuxedo.

“My wife loved that,” he said. “He is all over the world now.”

The saxophonist Alison Young impressed Morton so much during one event that he asked her to join his band for an evening gig. Today, she’s just come off the road after touring with Corey Hart.

As executive director he said he went to every venue to see how things were going.

“I was checking to see if they needed programs or water and then I’d go in and watch the kids. I would do that all day.”

Kerson Leong. Photo: Bruno Schlumberger

The festival adjudicators are important to the success of every event. It’s a hard job because you need the training to evaluate a performer and then you have to sit for up to 12 hours a day listening to the same piece over and over again and still be as encouraging as possible.

The festival does not hire local adjudicators to avoid any hint of bias. So they come to Ottawa from Saskatoon or Vancouver or other places in Canada.

Kim Chadsey is the current executive director of the Kiwanis Music Festival.

Some times you just have to roll up your sleeves.

Morton recalled one festival in which the flute adjudicator was called away because of a death in the family. Morton had to scramble to find a replacement who could handle a week full of budding flutists.

“You can’t just say sorry, we’re shutting down. All the people have worked for a year on these performances and their parents want to see them play. Something like this happens every year.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.