Category Archives: Arts and culture

An orchestra reboots

screen-shot-2017-01-22-at-3-09-37-pmAs one who has followed the triumphs and travails of the former Orchestra London for decades, I was really pleased to see its musicians coalesce around a new structure with a new name two days ago. New beginnings are always sweet — but for this ensemble, it must have been doubly so.

London Symphonia has managed a difficult balancing act: It has retained many of its core musicians, added others and reorganized in such a way as to preserve its artistic integrity and attract new support after throwing off the shackles of the organization that closed its doors in late 2014 and dissolved into bankruptcy in mid-2015. According to spokesperson Andrew Chung, London Symphonia already enjoys the support of government arts granting organizations, as well as a dedicated quorum of new and old supporters. That sounds far easier than it is.

I’ve written several columns (you can find samples here and here) over recent years about Orchestra London’s organizational failures and its struggle to battle back from life support to some sort of institutional viability. While the ensemble’s artistry was never in doubt, the former orchestra suffered from poor governance, ineffectual administrative leadership and structural models that were no longer in tune with its marketplace.

The ensemble’s musicians valiantly pursued their craft, post-bankruptcy, through #WePlayOn, which continued to play publicly, often for free, as they tried to find a suitable container for talents and aspirations of its members. London Symphonia is the result.

CTV London covered the new orchestra’s first concert, and London Free Press arts writer James Stewart Reaney provided a fitting column as one of his last acts on staff at the newspaper before his retirement.

London Symphonia’s website is here; its Twitter account is here. I wish them great success. It has been a long, hard, rocky road.

Musicians of the former Orchestra London play a Christmas concert in the baggage claim area at London International Airport on Dec. 22, 2014 — just weeks after Orchestra London closed its doors — in an effort to keep orchestral music in the community alive.

Musicians of the former Orchestra London play a Christmas concert in the baggage claim area at London International Airport on Dec. 22, 2014 — just weeks after Orchestra London closed its doors — in an effort to keep orchestral music in the community alive.

Joseph Lanza on CBC Radio’s Cross Country Checkup

Joseph-LanzaOrchestra London concertmaster Joseph Lanza was one of the callers to CBC Radio’s Cross Country Checkup on Sunday, where the topic for discussion was the future of classical music. It was a timely call; earlier that week, the orchestra had announced it was suspending operations in the wake of a huge operating deficit. The orchestra spent $330,000 more than it brought in during the 2013-14 season, bringing its accumulated deficit to well over $1 million. A London Free Press story from city hall today indicates that the orchestra plans to go cap-in-hand to city council this week with a new request for funds, which includes an amount to pay for a bankruptcy proceeding.

Here, meanwhile, is the call Lanza made to the weekly CBC Radio show, hosted on Sunday afternoons by Rex Murphy:

A way forward for Orchestra London

OLlogoDiscussion of Orchestra London‘s financial woes has been robust on social media over the past few days, following reports that the organization no longer has the resources to pay its employees or proceed with planned concerts.

In response to my column in yesterday’s London Free Press, city resident and community activist Greg Fowler tweeted that, while it was a “great read,” it didn’t directly address the problems facing the orchestra. I tried responding in three bursts of 140 characters each, but here’s a slightly more detailed description of what I was thinking. My thoughts are rooted in my experience on the boards of other charities and educational institutions.

1. It’s become clear that, after more than a decade of failures on the governance and administrative side of the organization, Orchestra London’s current support structure is broken. While the artistic side of the orchestra has remained competent and even masterful, given the conditions under which its musicians have been forced to work, the administrative and managerial side has let the local community down. Even a financial monitor and a blue-ribbon panel of high-profile local businesspeople, co-opted in 2009 during the orchestra’s last major meltdown, seem to have been ineffective at either re-crafting the organization or garnering sufficient financial support from the community to sustain the orchestra’s longstanding business model.

2. The last time the orchestra’s board and consultants were so proactive in speaking publicly about the organization’s troubles, it was to assuage the sense that the organization was about to go over a financial cliff. At the time, Joe Swan, who would shortly become the orchestra’s executive director, spoke optimistically about future surpluses that would be used to chip away at the orchestra’s deficit, which was then just over $1 million. Last week, the orchestra came forward, publicly, again. Why now? I suspect it’s because the board and the ED have seen the latest audited financial figures — and they’re a nightmare. (Board president Joe O’Neill has not responded to my request for an interview.) It’s better to get out in front of a bad-news story, the theory goes (it didn’t work out so well for Jian Ghomeshi), rather than have it chase you.

3. The orchestra’s fiscal year ended on June 30, 2014. No audit has yet been released, though I can’t imagine that it hasn’t been completed. Big. Red. Flag. The most recent annual report available ends June 30, 2013.

4. So how to go forward? As I mentioned in my column, I personally recoil against the prospect of just letting Orchestra London die and file for bankruptcy, leaving its creditors holding the bag. It sends a signal of abandonment and a lack of civic will. I believe Londoners can and should do better than that. I’m no lawyer — and there are numerous legal hurdles here — but where there’s a will, there’s usually a way. And here’s what I’d like to see accomplished:

• London city council commit just enough money to pay the orchestra’s musicians and stagehands through the end of December. They are collateral damage here in a disaster that is administrative and fiduciary, not artistic.

• London city council might insist, as a condition of its assistance, that the current executive director resign immediately and that the current board of directors should resign upon completion of a strategic renewal process that would include:

a musical arts summit, to be convened sometime in the month of January 2015, specifically programmed to deal with Orchestra London’s future.

using the summit to explore new synergies between London’s performing musical groups, ensembles and events, including those that are amateur, academic and professional.

embarking on a one-time, three-month fundraising campaign, broadly based and widely communicated, to deal with the the orchestra’s existing debt and to act as the great reset in its viability as a significant part of the local arts community in the future.

electing a new board of directors, once the future strategic direction becomes clear. Once elected, the new orchestra board should rewrite its constitutional documents to give the orchestra’s musicians a greater presence and better oversight into the board’s deliberations and decisions. (One orchestra member told me recently that the players’ representatives on the board are too often excluded by in-camera sessions that keep the musicians in the dark about what is really going on at the board level. This is an important governance issue.)

engaging with citizens who would respond to a very different type of programming than that which has traditionally characterized the orchestra. A night of soundtrack songs from Disney’s princess movies? Why not. A concert of music from the Twilight films? Yes. Mashups between the orchestra and headliners from Sunfest and the Home County Folk Festival, either on the Victoria Park bandshell stage or Centennial Hall, adjacent to the park? Absolutely.

formulating partnerships between the orchestra and the community, both on the artistic and corporate sides, that haven’t yet been tried — or  envisaged.

Even with its current level of indebtedness, the life or death of Orchestra London is as much a matter of political will as it is of money. I don’t for a minute believe that Londoners don’t possess, within themselves, the creativity and leadership needed to get through these next few months. Orchestra London should be allowed to live — though in a vastly changed form.

Lastly, I greatly admire the orchestra’s players, who, through all of this turmoil, simply want to life spirits and contribute positively to the community with their talents and commitment. Yesterday, amid the financial gloom, concertmaster Joseph Lanza and oboist Jennifer Short dropped by the London Public Library branch in their own neighbourhood to play some seasonal music.  Here’s a sample:

Update (Dec. 15): London Free Press reporter Patrick Maloney is reporting tonight that the orchestra’s deficit for the 2013-14 season was about $330,000, putting the accumulated deficit at more than $1 million.

Link to downtown Brantford study

Below is a link to the study on the effect of post-secondary institutions on the core of Brantford, Ont., roughly a decade after that strategy was implemented there. It’s the study to which I refer in today’s column in The London Free Press.

2012 Economic Impact

The multi-dimensional Peter Desbarats

Official UWO portrait

Peter Desbarats 1933-2014

As I wrote in a newspaper column last week, former Canadian journalist Peter Desbarats was a complex individual with many sides and a variety of literary voices: poet, journalist, author, essayist, children’s author, performer, scholar. Noted obituary writer Fred Langan captured much of this in his memorial piece in Saturday’s Globe and Mail, describing Desbarats as a multimedia man with “a Don Draper phase.”

Indeed, some of this complexity emerged at Desbarats’ funeral on Friday. There were tears; there was laughter. Nephews joked about his “sideburns phase” at Global Television and the fact that, for a while, he wore a cape. “Yes, an actual cape,” one said. Peter’s widow, Hazel, read one of his favourite children’s stories — Halibut York: The Night the City Sang, which Desbarats published in 1964. And there was, even among those of us who knew him fairly well, a new appreciation for the diversity of his writing.

John Longhurst, a communications staffer with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and a longtime friend, wrote to remind me that Desbarats had been a keynote speaker at a conference on faith and media in Winnipeg in 1998. In that speech, Desbarats revealed the texture of his spiritual side and how it meshed with his function as a journalist. Portions of that speech are worth reprinting here, as a kind of epilogue.

“I was raised in a strict Roman Catholic home, educated by Jesuit priests, rebelled against this in my late teens, became the first member of my family to go through a divorce (followed by many others in subsequent years), later insisted on sending my reluctant younger children to Sunday school and wound up to my astonishment as a member of the United Church of Canada, a denomination that my Jesuit professors used to refer to as the ‘Rotary Club of Canadian churches,’ ” Desbarats said.

“When I was in school, I was taught by my enlightened Jesuit professors that these two approaches [rationalist and fundamentalist] were not in irreconcilable opposition, and in fact could never be, because God had not only given some of us faith but had endowed us with intelligence. For instance, I was taught that the science of evolution was reconcilable with Roman Catholic doctrine, as long as we believed that an act of divine creation started the whole process.

“In centuries past, and up to my own school days, the contrast between religion and science was manageable, but now the gap has become unbridgeable . Rationalists who cling to religion because of tradition, or because it provides an ethical guide, do so with a growing sense of contradiction between what they know and what they believe. In practising their religion, they have to turn off a larger and larger part of their intelligence. In the same way, only more extreme, fundamentalists have to deny a larger and larger body of scientific evidence that is in conflict with their most basic beliefs. They do this by believing more intensely.

“Surely this growing chasm between rationalists and fundamentalists — which most of us see reflected in our own inner lives all the time, and witness constantly in the world around us and in its reflection in the media — surely this is the most significant development of our generation.

“Oddly enough, I suppose that what this typical liberal journalist is concluding at this point is that the big story of our time, the great and growing divide between rationalists and fundamentalists, cannot be properly covered by liberal journalists who are religious illiterates. It requires journalists who are rationalists, for journalism as we know it is essentially a rationalist undertaking, but who also know, understand and respect what is happening on the ‘other’ side, the fundamentalist side. This kind of reporting is not occurring at the moment, its absence is making it much more difficult for us to understand what is happening in our own society and in others, and the problem isn’t going to be resolved by paying more attention to, or trying to improve, religious journalism in the conventional sense.”

Desbarats’ observation remains apt, 16 years later.

Gun violence: Could Hollywood lead where lawmakers fail?

Screen Shot 2012-12-15 at 3.05.31 PM“They had their entire lives ahead of them.
Birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.
… Our hearts are broken today.”
—U.S. President Barack Obama

No words can adequately sum up the horror and loss experienced by the community of Newtown, Conn., in the wake of Friday’s massacre, in which most of the victims were children. U.S. President Barack Obama expressed the sentiments of more than just Americans when he said “our hearts are broken today.” Nearly every parent, every teacher, felt the same.

Within hours of the shootings, the inexorable debate began in the United States again: What can be done to stop gun violence? Obama himself signalled that the time for political action had come. “As a country, we have been through this too many times,” he said in his address to Americans Friday afternoon. “Whether it’s an elementary school in Newtown or a shopping mall in Oregon or a temple in Wisconsin or a movie theater in Aurora or a street corner in Chicago, these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods and these children are our children. And we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”

Just as quickly, though, the intractable voices on both sides of the U.S. gun-control debate began their braying. And given the current state of the U.S. Congress, where both the bipartisan relationship and ability to move forward on meaningful legislation ranges from dysfunctional to gridlocked, it’s already clear that no action will occur anytime soon.

Could Hollywood, however, lead where American lawmakers fail?

Let me preface my main point by saying that this is not a condemnation of the American motion picture industry. Like any other industry, it has produced some spectacular failures and some radiant gems. At this time of year, we revel in some of its best work — classic holiday films that lift spirits and convey real meaning about life and love and giving. We can scarcely imagine the holiday season without the classic celluloid of It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, Scrooge or White Christmas.

Film has, and has always had, an enormous influence on American culture and its youth. Historically, television and motion pictures have pioneered attitudinal change and the cracking of stereotypes on issues such as race, culture, class struggle and sexual orientation. Hollywood’s film industry played an enormous role in America’s coming to terms with its own ghosts and nightmares — Vietnam, assassinations, the civil rights movement, Richard Nixon, Iraq, and 9/11 among them. The film industry, which employs some of the most creative minds in the country, has enormous power, reach and influence.

So — could it lead on the issue of gun violence? Gunplay is a staple of modern filmmaking. Consider what’s on screens in theatres right now, even as Newtown mourns its dead: Killing Them Softly, Skyfall, Jack Reacher. Consider that movies such as Marvel’s The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hunger Games, Taken 2, The Amazing Spider-Man, Men in Black 3 and The Bourne Legacy have been among the most profitable films of the year.

This is not to suggest that gun violence be scoured from the movie industry — an impossible and impractical idea. Nor is it a plea for Hollywood to return to a kind of Hays Code as far as guns are concerned.

But in memory of the children of Newtown — zip code 06470 — could some single calendar year (perhaps 2017, given existing post-production timetables) be one in which Hollywood’s studios forgo, for merely 12 months, the release of motion pictures that portray gun violence? And in so doing, could the creative minds of the movie industry begin, in their own way, to blunt the national American obsession with bullet-riddled death? To my mind, Hollywood has an opportunity here, once more, to lead — and to accomplish, however incrementally, what America’s atrophied politics cannot.

The victimsCredit: The New York Times

Ottawa issues warning to Canadian Mennonite magazine

When my electronic copy of the latest issue of the award-winning church magazine Canadian Mennonite arrived in my inbox last week, I was shocked while reading editor-publisher Dick Benner’s editorial. In it, he disclosed the magazine has received a warning letter from Canada Revenue Agency about its “political activities.” Additional details were published in a news story by board vice-chair Carl DeGurse in the same issue. The story disturbed me on two levels: one, sudden engagement of a government department with a magazine that has had a long history of provoking discussion about the interplay between church and state; second, the notion that Ottawa is, apparently, making subjective judgments about the political activities of Canadian charities, applying litmus tests by which their charitable status might be preserved or revoked.

Canadian Mennonite is the published under a partnership agreement between six different Mennonite bodies under the umbrella of Canadian Mennonite Publishing Service, which has charitable status so that individual church members (or others) may make personal donations. The magazine’s guiding principles, ownership and governance structures, bylaws and annual reports are all abundantly transparent and are available here. (Full disclosure: I served on the board of CMPS from 2004-2010; the last two years as board chair.) Throughout its existence, it has been a member of the Canadian Church Press and has regularly been recognized for excellence in editorial content and design.

Canadian Mennonite is, in fact, the successor to a tabloid newspaper called Mennonite Reporter, whose founding editor in 1971 was historian and church journalist Frank H. Epp. Owing to the nature of Mennonite experience and theology, both periodicals have a long history of reflecting the continuing struggle, within their constituents and readers, of what it means to be “in the world but not of the world.” Isolation from society, as reflected among the Amish (theological cousins to Mennonites) is one response; full engagement with it is another. There are many shades of grey in between. The point is that it is within the nature of the denomination, which sees peace and justice as primary motivators, to continuously grapple with the church-state relationship, including issues such as war, peacemaking, sanctuary for refugees, justice, humanitarian concerns, disaster relief, foreign policy and so on. Over the past century, Mennonite periodicals in Canada and the United States have reflected this. Many other denominations, such as the United Church of Canada, have had similar priorities.

I can appreciate the byzantine challenge that the CRA faces in trying to determine which applicants and holders of Canadian charitable status are legitimate. The task of separating the wheat from the chaff here must be complex and occasionally frustrating. And, indeed, it’s important for all of us, as citizens, that Canadian charities not be fronts from political organizations, fly-by-night operators, hate groups, foreign operatives and other schemes. To that extent, it’s appropriate for CRA to examine the nature and general activities of each Canadian charity on a regular basis.

But to issue a warning to an established church magazine over content that urges readers to carefully consider the voting records of MPs before casting their ballots, or opinion pieces that wonder about the Christian response to the killing of Osama bin Laden, smacks of administrative overreaching and interference, not to mention the chilling effect it has on religious press freedoms.

Application of the same type of monitoring to other Canadian charities would mean that CRA would begin vetting the homilies and sermons delivered in churches, synagogues and mosques (Canadian charities, all) or keeping a closer watch over the activities of AIDS societies, United Way campaigns, or community foundations for some sense as to their political leanings.

I’m glad Mia Rabson of the Winnipeg Free Press picked up this story yesterday, as have a number of other bloggers, writers, newscasts and websites over the past few days. Every Canadian charity should be concerned, even if Canadian Mennonite is the only member of the Canadian Church Press to have received such a letter of warning.

Update: Marcy Markusa of CBC’s Information Radio in Manitoba interviewed Benner regarding this issue on Nov. 9; that chat can be heard here.

Update 2: Here’s Dick Benner’s second editorial on the subject; this one in the Nov. 26 issue of Canadian Mennonite.