Special to The Record
The Strathcona Symphony Orchestra begins its second decade with Jim Montgomery holding the baton, not Pippa Williams.
After seven years with Williams as conductor and music director, Montgomery succeeds her by drawing on 35 years of professional, orchestral and educational experience.
Although he looks forward to the challenge, Montgomery had not planned to lead the SSO.
“This came up … due to serendipity,” he said in an interview. “I moved to the Comox Valley to initiate my retirement. I was drawn by the climate and the water.”
After receiving a PhD from the prestigious Indiana University School of Music in 1987, the B.C. native was a professor at the University of Western Ontario and the University of Prince Edward Island for 15 years.
Most recently, he was director of the music program at Ardrossan Junior-Senior High School, just outside Edmonton.
“We’ve been working our way back west,” he said of he and his wife Amanda, who is on sabbatical for a year from her job in Alberta. “It’s taken 35 years but we’ve finally moved back to God’s country. It just seems right.”
Montgomery landed the SSO position after answering a newspaper ad.
He inherits a situation that Williams and other community orchestra conductors have faced – striking a balance between not overwhelming less-experienced players while not boring veteran musicians.
“That’s always the challenge of a community-based organization,” Montgomery agreed. “It’s a challenge that I really enjoy. I’ve always found it to be extremely rewarding, working with individuals who are in their seats for the right reason.
“It’s sometimes different in a professional group. It can be treated as a job. Along with the job come certain responsibilities and expectations. “Enjoyment of the music might not be the most important one.”
Working as a teacher or with community orchestras has a different dynamic.
“In many cases, you’re introducing music to these individuals for the very first time. It’s a rare opportunity to touch them in a very special way, to open their eyes to wonderful music that has existed for hundreds of years.”
He said striking that aforementioned balance is something he prides himself on.
Montgomery’s jazz and concert bands have won top honours at music festivals around Western Canada.
A trombone player, Montgomery gave private lessons on trombone, trumpet and tuba to young musicians in the Edmonton area. Time permitting, he expects to do the same in the Comox Valley.
He has conducted orchestras and taught conducting “every step along the way.”
While planning what the SSO might perform this season, Montgomery is also starting to build the SSO’s own music library “of good, representative quality music that can carry the orchestra in whatever guise it develops into in years to come.”
The SSO previously had access to music from the Nanaimo-based Vancouver Island Symphony Orchestra through Williams, the VISO’s principal oboist.
Montgomery is making progress locating sheet music with the help of local people.
“Just having been here a short time, I found that everyone in the Valley is extremely helpful, friendly, co-operative…”
The Comox Valley Youth Music Centre has helped a lot and Montgomery is also exploring “a vast collection” of classical music at the West Vancouver library.
Montgomery met orchestra members at a meet and greet earlier this month, followed by a first rehearsal Sept. 14.
His diverse experience will allow him to succeed with the regional orchestra, said John Heintz, an SSO board of directors member for five years.
Montgomery, said Heintz, inherits a “fairly solid group of string players and wind players who have been with the orchestra for several years.”
Heintz admitted Montgomery has big shoes to fill.
“Losing Pippa presented a real challenge to the board,” he said. “She really brought the orchestra so far in terms of the performances they’ve been able to give.”
Williams decided not to accept a contract the SSO offered to her in the spring, said Heintz.
He praised her for the seven years she guided the SSO after relieving founder Blaine Waldbauer, now the SSO concertmaster.
“When Pippa was recommended to the orchestra, she brought not only a tremendous enthusiasm, but a very considerable knowledge of orchestral music,” Heintz stated.
“She was able to find pieces that would challenge and stretch the less-experienced members of the orchestra … but the orchestra could still perform to the standards that the audience could enjoy.”
Williams was “very imaginative in the programming,” Heintz said, recalling a Russian program including some Stravinsky, a Spanish program that included a Spanish dancer and a Gilbert and Sullivan program.
Other notable concerts were inspired by Broadway musicals and film scores.
Williams helped to expand the SSO’s audience, Heintz indicated.
“We began getting an audience that really enjoyed the music, not just because they were related to someone in the orchestra.”
Still, Heintz believes the SSO was lucky to have found such a worthy replacement.
“It looks as if he has exactly the right set of skills and experiences to make it work.”
The SSO will open its season with seasonal music in December supporting the Rotary fundraiser Basics for Babies. Concerts will follow Jan. 22 and 23, March 13 and May 28 and 29.
For more information, visit the SSO’s Facebook page.
Mark Allan is a freelance writer and a former editor of the Comox Valley Record.