The Symphony Splash experience did not disappoint this year for qStudios student Ben Parker. I have played Splash many times over the years, and it is always an exciting day to be a musician in Victoria. This year, however, was unlike anything I had experienced before. Having Ben perform as the first wind player, let alone TRUMPET player, as young soloist of the year was a surreal experience.
While the Kids Zone was in full swing on the Empress lawn, Ben and fellow performers were collecting behind the parliament building as they prepared to parade down to the barge before the performance. In line with tradition, the soloists sit with Tania Miller as they lead the symphony through the parliament grounds, through throngs of fans 40,000 strong, past the empress, and down to the barge where they will perform.
On stage, the challenge was to stay warm. Even through it is the middle of summer, as the night falls and you are sitting in the middle of the harbour waters the temperature drops very quickly. Ben could be seen backstage doing jumping jacks with socks on his hands during the lead up to his performance. Anything you can do to be ready, you do it, especially with such a huge performance on the line.
Ben performed halfway through the first half of the show, and when he stepped onto the barge for the bravura opening of the Arutunian Concerto, Ben was calm and in control. This performance stands as a testament to how preparation and experience helps to make even the most challenging performances manageable. Ben had the opportunity to play the concerto with the symphony twice leading up to the day, but he also played it this year with the GVYO and performed at the local and provincial level of the Performing Arts Festival with it as well. The more you get out there and perform, the easier it gets. You are never too young to act like a pro.
Below are some snaps from the day, and below that is a collection of reviews as I find them. Congratulations Ben on a once in a lifetime performance!
It was a first for the Victoria Symphony Splash. On Sunday night, 16-year-old Ben Parker made history as the first trumpet soloist in the outdoor concert’s 26-year history.
The Victoria teen’s debut was a challenging one: Alexander Arutiunian’s Trumpet Concerto in A Minor. It’s a showy, dramatic work demanding much of any trumpet player and is often selected as an audition piece for the prestigious Juilliard School in New York.
Happily, the young man was up for the challenge. Conducted by the Victoria Symphony music director Tania Miller, Parker displayed sharp technique and a rounded tone, impressing especially during the work’s extended cadenza. It was a confident performance, especially noteworthy given the evening chill would have made staying in tune a chore for Parker and the entire orchestra.
Parker’s performance met with enthused applause from a huge crowd at the Inner Harbour.
“That’s awesome,” said one teenage audience member.
The weather had cooled significantly after a hot summer afternoon. Nonetheless, the audience’s spirits seemed high as clouds dissipated and a golden, autumn-like sun lit the barge-stage, populated with white-suited musicians.
In introducing the evening, conductor Miller declared the concert is all about dance, noting that the program was stuffed with waltzes, polkas and tangos. Fittingly then, she exhorted the audience to dance.
“Imagine this beautiful harbour is our elegant and grand ballroom,” Miller said.
And the crowd did dance. Couples waltzed on the causeway, earning cheers from spectators. Boaters who had floated in also managed a cautious turn or two.
Before the orchestra performed, Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps encouraged people to enjoy “the best concert in the best city, I’d say, in British Columbia and Canada.”
The other soloist was 18-year-old Rebecca Bracewell, who was the Symphony Splash’s first accordionist. She played two pieces by Argentinean tango master Astor Piazzolla: Libertango and Oblivion. Bracewell is a gifted musician who played with great fluidity and technical skill. It’s true that, at times, her accordion couldn’t be heard as well as Parker’s trumpet — at least from the lawn of the Legislature. Still, it was an impressive performance from a talented young musician. And the music’s South American flavour created a wonderfully evocative summertime atmosphere.
Among the crowd were James Byers and his wife, Kathleen, who seemed to have scored the primo viewing spot. The Toronto couple sat in folding chairs, on the causeway, directly in front of where the Victoria Symphony performed
James, a 66-year-old wearing Bootsy Collins-style star sunglasses, said his son-in-law Mike Hill arrived at 6:30 a.m. to secure them. It was one of the best vantage points for Victoria’s largest outdoor concert.
“We arrived here on the best weekend, the blue moon and the symphony. And seeing our grandkids,” said Kathleen.
The crowds thronged, but in a well-behaved, cheerful way. There were moms with strollers, seniors with canes, teens, tourists. Kayakers, canoeists and motor-boaters floated up to take their spot near the barge where the orchestra and other entertainers performed.
In the afternoon, the sun shone brilliantly. This meant umbrellas and half-shell tents on the lawn of the legislature. This meant Tilley hats, short-shorts and sunglasses. Business was brisk at a lemon-shaped hut that sold the sort of drink one might expect at a lemon-shaped hut.
A grey-haired woman manning one of the Victoria Symphony’s donation barrels said the stream of coins and bills was “pretty good.”
The show started at 4 p.m. with the event’s opening act, The Midnights, who started off with the Staple Singers’ I’ll Take You There. The teenage lead singer explained she wasn’t yet born when the 1972 tune was a hit. The Midnights’ sound bounced merrily against the 19th-century legislature buildings, creating a 1.5-second echo as Pharrell’s Happy and the Jackson Five’s I Want You Back ping-ponged between barge and stone walls.
Some listened to the music, others chatted, a few napped, others scarfed ice cream or ketchup-slathered hotdogs purchased from food trucks. Some perched on a grassy knoll, respectfully avoiding yellow flower beds that spell: “Welcome to Victoria.” A man with a clutch of telescopes sat beside a hand-lettered sign that said: “View the sun, safe and free.”
Another couple, Helen Schuckel, 76, and Bill Schuckel, 78, said they’d travelled from Duncan to join in the fun. Their son reserved their spots right in front of the barge at 6:30 a.m. Helen said she had attended the Splash every year except for two.
The sun was bright, but the couple weren’t worried about about over-exposure. “Well, we’re so old, we don’t burn now,” Helen said with a smile.
POP QUIZ: Which talented musician performed to a screaming crowd of more than 40,000 British Columbians this past long weekend?
a) Taylor Swift
b) SMUS student Ben Parker
If you guessed ‘Both’ you’re right!
While T-Swift performed at B.C. Place in Vancouver, Ben helped draw a massive crowd to the Inner Harbour for the 26th annual Symphony Splash, an incredible outdoor concert put on by the Victoria Symphony.
“Honestly, performing for a crowd that size was relaxing in a weird way,” the Grade 12 student says, looking back at his weekend gig. “It’s a little disorienting looking out (at the crowd) because everyone’s looking at you, but it’s relaxing because all you have to do is focus on the moment. With the orchestra behind you and the whole Inner Harbour in front of you, all you have to do is play your piece.”
For Ben, that piece was the Arutiunian Trumpet Concerto. It’s a flashy and exciting song he learned this past year that, according to the New York Times, is frequently performed by trumpeters in their audition for Juilliard.
And Ben knocked it out of the park like a pro!
He first picked up the trumpet nearly a decade ago, when he and his family were living in Turkey. “My dad took me down to the music store and I tried out the trumpet. I made a sound on the first try, so I knew that that was my instrument of choice.”
It was when Ben joined the SMUS community in Grade 6, and started performing with the Middle School Jazz Band that he got inspired to really focus on his music. The exceptionally talented young musician now plays with the Greater Victoria Youth Orchestra and is off to Edmonton later this month to compete at the National Music Festival.
He auditioned for Symphony Splash’s Young Soloist program in June and, after being accepted, has spent much of his summer practising solo. His first practice alongside the full orchestra and Maestra Tania Miller didn’t happen until a few days before the big show.
“Sometimes professional musicians don’t even get to rehearse together before the show, so I’m really glad we got that,” Ben says. “It was really humbling getting to perform and mingle with the musicians; they all treat you like a musician – that was really great.”
The Symphony Splash concert is held every year in Victoria’s picturesque Inner Harbour. The orchestra performs from a barge in the water for a crowd of tens of thousands of people.
Ben says the show was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many reasons. The first being that few musicians get to perform from a barge where “you’re like a foot away from the edge. If you go over you fall into the water.”
But more importantly, it was the feeling performing alongside a professional symphony that he hopes to never forget.
“It was all a huge blur. Right after I performed, I decided I need to remember this whole thing and I tried hard to focus on everything. Being up there is very intense,” he says. “The feeling of playing with them, it was sort of like playing with a professional accompanist. … The sound of them coming from behind me was just amazing. During the interlude, between the sections where I played, it was amazing to just listen to them playing right next to me. They were playing with me.”
Orchestras are of two minds in the summer. Players get out of town for a well deserved rest or head to chamber music festivals or larger orchestral festivals like Verbier and Aspen. The Berlin and Vienna bands have their one large public concert, Berlin in the Waldbühne and Vienna playing at the Schönbrunn Palace Park. Other orchestras such as BBC Symphony hunker down for a long summer of Proms and the Boston Symphony players get ready for 8 weeks of concerts and teaching at Tanglewood. Musical and rewarding sure, but very challenging after a long concert season.
Our Victoria players are on hiatus except for the annual Symphony Splash, where our natural theater for the show is the magnificent Victoria Inner Harbour. Palaces and forest amphitheatres are lovely, but other than Bregenz’ Opera on the Lake, nothing really compares to our magnificent Pacific Ocean arena.
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