How to build a symphony

Classical music in the Fraser Valley has seen its share of ups and downs over the years. Today, the scene is thriving - but the future is far from certain.

The audience knows the concert is getting good when the piano starts rattling. 

That’s one of the moments that Julia Toews, the Fraser Valley Symphony’s historian (and past-president), says is particularly special—especially in the small confines of the Matsqui Centennial Auditorium in Abbotsford.

“[The audience] is not that far away from the performer,” Toews said. “And when the piano starts shaking, you know they’re really putting all their energy into it. And that’s kind of fun.” 

The audience at the Fraser Valley Symphony’s 40th anniversary performance this winter treated it like a hockey game. People were cheering after each act and someone, somewhere in the audience, would whistle loudly. It was clear the place the musicians held in their community’s heart.

The Fraser Valley hasn’t always had such a thriving community of classical and artistic music. But small organizations that put on concerts for locals have persisted and attitudes towards the arts have slowly shifted over the decades. For some, the road is getting rougher, costs are mounting, and the future is uncertain, but leaders in the local classical music scene say it’s important to keep the art alive—and not just for the music. 

Starting a symphony

Toews remembers plenty of music in the area before the Fraser Valley Symphony held its first season in 1984.

“You had these bursts of musical energy,” she said. But sustaining momentum was hard. Musicals and shows and concerts would start up, then vanish. 

That started to change in the 1980s with 25 nervous musicians clustered in a big room at what was then Fraser Valley College. Frank Dolman, then a professor at the college, had put the call out to the valley’s classical musicians. 

Toews, a violinist, got a phone call from a friend. Come to the Fraser Valley College for this meeting, they said: “We’re wanting to start a symphony.” 

The vibe during that first meeting was excited, but tentative. No one knew then that they were creating a symphony that would endure for 40 more years. 

Both the musicians in the room that day and those who would join them over the next four decades loved the music they played—and the community they joined. It’s an invaluable thing, Toews said, for a musician to be able to play with a high-level group. She had played in her first orchestra when she was 13 and had gone on to perform with the Regina Symphony Orchestra. But when she moved to Abbotsford, there was no group for her to join until the Fraser Valley Symphony began. Toews said being part of a symphony again was lovely. It let her meet people from all over the world and build friendships with individuals she otherwise would never have met—all in the name of music. 

“I was not in a position to go to Vancouver to join a group there,” she said, “So here was a chance for me to join in and play the music that I love.”

After a few years, Toews would become president of the symphony’s board, and would watch as attitudes towards artistic endeavors shifted.

In the early years, funding the symphony was tricky. It was difficult to get any money for the arts in the 80s and 90s, she said, and classical music wasn’t much different. But that was changing.

“Since then, [compared to] now, I believe there’s a much greater appreciation for the arts and for classical music,” she said.

The Fraser Valley Symphony is a full symphony orchestra based in Abbotsford. 📷️ Fraser Valley Symphony Group/Facebook

Community and culture

The symphony wasn’t only the result of a changing attitude towards art. It also helped coax that shift along a little. Toews said that having a symphony in a city or town shows a little bit of culture and demonstrates how art brings people together and enhances a community. 

“After we had been running for a few years already,” Toews said, “one of the top music teachers in town, she said, ‘Oh, yeah, this symphony has made a big difference, just in the music climate and appreciation for the arts, in town.’ ”

Full symphonies aren’t the only organizations that might have that effect on a place. Small towns might not have 25 classically-trained, pro-level musicians ready to build an orchestra from scratch, but many still have people trying to keep classical music pouring into the ears of its residents. 

Agassiz is one of these towns.

The Cheam Vista Concert Society is a relative newcomer to the classical music scene. It began eight years ago and, today, organizes four concerts every season in which professional musicians play for a small audience at Riverside Christian Reformed Church. Some performing groups are relatively local, others fly in from around the world. Not everything on offer is technically classical music, but it would all be considered “artistic.” 

John Zuidhof, the concert society’s president, said the concert season is a great opportunity for the community to enjoy an evening together. Like Toews, Zuidhof said the ability to share classical music in a small community is important. And in Agassiz, the community aspect is particularly important  for the residents. It’s not just a concert; it’s a social event. 

“We offer an intermission and some goodies and coffee and they love that,” Zuidhof said. “After 20 minutes, I have to cut it off and turn the lights out and shoo them back into the auditorium, because they’re just visiting.” 

Especially in a town with a large population of senior citizens on fixed incomes, it’s a significant benefit to be able to see a concert that might cost two or three times more in Vancouver. There’s also a lot less travel involved. 

While a season pass to the concert series is fairly inexpensive—especially compared to bigger concerts farther west—running the society has become a challenging financial balancing act, Zuidhof said. While the group had a strong first few seasons, the COVID-19 pandemic hit it hard. A few days after the interview Zuidhof gave this reporter, the society met to determine whether or not it could hope to hold a season in 2025.

Next year’s concert season will go on, Zuidhof reported after the meeting. But it’s still trying to build towards long-term sustainability. While the Fraser Valley Symphony’s long history saw an improvement in arts funding and appreciation over the last 40 years, the Cheam Vista Concert Society started in a different era. And though it has a devoted audience and will keep on for now, its future is uncertain. 

But that’s okay. 

While Zuidhof knows the society might not last forever, he isn’t worried. 

“It's not so stressful, at least not for me,” Zuidhof said. “We just do the best we can. And if it works, it works. If it doesn't, then we'll just decide to shut her down. But as long as it's working, it's providing a beautiful service to the community.”

The next generation

Zuidhof and Toews agree that the future of classical music—and alongside it, fine arts in general—lies where the future always does: with the young people. During intermissions at the society’s concerts, between the graying heads of concert-lovers, Zuidhof sees a few kids, but not many. Toews’ favourite part of the Fraser Valley Symphony’s concerts is when a talented teenager auditions and plays a piece with the symphony. 

But gaining (and keeping) that interest is getting harder and harder to do—and not (only) because kids would rather be rockstars than oboists. 

Calvin Dyck, a professional violinist in the Vancouver Island Symphony (where he serves as concertmaster, or first-chair violin) and Abbotsford music teacher, among other things, is a career musician and music educator who has been teaching for decades.

But when one of his top students won a major prize with a violin performance at the Chilliwack Festival in 2019, then quit the next day to learn guitar and join a band, Dyck realized that there was something missing for young students of classical music. He started the Abbotsford Youth Orchestra later that year. 

The orchestra, born from a partnership with a previous violin performance group and Abbotsford Community Music School, brings young people together to play in a group, have fun, socialize, and learn together. Asking a kid to practice scales alone in their room for hours at a time, instead of playing a different instrument in a garage with their friends, wasn’t always going to work. So Dyck added social aspects. And some travel. And some fun adventures. The community that a symphony can form isn’t just precious to grown-ups like Toews. It’s important to young musicians, too.

“We try to include fun things, whether that's a corn maze, or tour, or bowling, or a party or what have you,” Dyck said. “We try to do things that will provide a social element for the youth and it's been really successful from that point of view—in keeping them interested in playing together and making great music.”

Calvin Dyck at Symphony in the Park in 2019, which featured arrangements of famous movie themes—including Star Wars 📷️ Liits Lens/Facebook

The AYO has played concerts all over the province. Former members have gone on to some of the best music schools in the world. One plays in the Vancouver Symphony. Another joined the Armed Forces String Quartet, which plays at Rideau Hall in Ottawa and for various visiting heads of state. 

The AYO also puts on a free summer concert called Symphony in the Park that draws about 4,000 people every year to Mill Lake Park. Dyck hires professional musicians to join the students to play in a full orchestra—a rare experience for a young musician, even in a bigger city. The orchestra also holds a ticketed Christmas show and other, smaller concerts throughout the year. 

“It grew to become something very popular in the community as well,” Dyck said. “Which was a happy, happy coincidence.”

2019’s Symphony in the Park drew big crowds to Mill Lake Park. 📷️ Liits Lens/Facebook

But while adding adventure and social opportunities has made an impact, Dyck doesn’t know if it will be enough to keep kids coming back. Costs are climbing around every corner.

“What I'm finding is that the costs of doing business have risen precipitously since the pandemic,” Dyck said. The cost to put on the free summer show, for example, has doubled. Dyck fundraises all year to put the $60,000 concert on. A large portion of the money comes through sponsorships from businesses. 

While Dyck is hopeful that there will still be a place for classical music and musicians in the future, he said there’s evidence that investment into this particular branch of the arts is becoming a harder sell. Some of that is related to rising costs. Some of it is just about interest.

Dyck is seeing enrollment in music programs in the city decline, even as the population increases.

“That tells you that families or parents are less interested in putting their kids in music lessons.”

While classical music has seen a rise in popularity in Fraser Valley communities over the last 40 years, that change might not be permanent—especially as the cost to participate and fund such programs rises. But to some, the somewhat temporary nature of beautiful music—and the groups of people that bring it to life—adds to its value.

That was the case for Zuidof, the Cheam Concert Society’s president a few weeks ago, when he sat in the back of the small Agassiz church for the first concert of the 2024 season—still, at that point, uncertain if the society could hold a season the following year. The music was outstanding, he said, and the audience was loving it:

“And I sat there thinking, pinching myself, and thinking, ‘Wow, this is happening again.’”

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- Tyler, Joti, and Grace.

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