Notes of change

Founder Chris Wilcox celebrates 40 years with Scotia Festival of Music before retiring


t’s 237 steps from Chris Wilcox’s apartment (bursting with art, quirky collectibles, and a playful white cat) to the Peggy Corkum Music Room on Lady Hammond Road.
The building, renowned for its excellent acoustics and Steinway grand piano, is a second home for the man behind Scotia Festival of Music, which celebrates its 40th anniversary season from May 27 to June 9.
This is Wilcox’s last year as managing and artistic director of the two-week chamber-music festival he started with his one-time teacher Robert Marcellus (principal clarinet of the Cleveland Orchestra) as artistic director.
But he won’t step away completely. “Chris is what makes Scotia Festival so special. He has a sixth sense for bringing people together in an interesting way, finding the right piece and the right people to play it,” says Simon Docking, who is taking over as artistic director, calling the transition a “deliberate cross fade.”
There’s a sense of community at Scotia Festival, with its unique mix of professionals and young artists who come together for two weeks of coaching, daily concerts, and fun, says two-time Grammy winning violinist James Ehnes.
“Chris has a real knack for finding personalities that buy into the program,” he explains. “When chamber-music players invest in one another, the total is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Ehnes, who performed at the festival in 2016 and was artist-in-residence in 2017, says Wilcox lives by his own rules: “When he gets an idea, he spreads his enthusiasm for that idea. He never questions can we do it, he just says ‘I’ll figure it out.’ It’s such a great quality in a presenter.”
A Manitoban now living in Florida, Ehnes enthuses about how Wilcox makes everyone feel special and so much part of the family in such a short time.
Over the years, that family has included soprano Maureen Forrester, composer Philip Glass (in 1999 and 2018), violinist Yehudi Menuhin, violist Walter Trampler, pianists John Browning and Marc-Andre Hamelin and French Horn virtuoso Philip Myers, who will be part of the 2019 festival, among other celebrated musicians.
Acclaimed composer and conductor Pierre Boulez stands out among the festival’s star-studded performers for Wilcox. He brought “the biggest name in classical music in the second half of the 20th century,” from Paris to Halifax in 1991, along with Boulez’s 36-member Ensemble Intercontemporain, “the finest contemporary-music ensemble in the world,” on its first Canadian tour.
Wilcox describes himself as “beer-drinking second clarinet player,” so their relationship seems unlikely. He began writing to Boulez in the mid-1980s and forged a strong connection with the man he says “changed music history as a composer.”
Boulez’s description of Scotia Festival as being “like a living thing,” is a quote Wilcox treasures, as he does the memory of Boulez attending every student concert and helping set up chairs for rehearsals.
Born in Winnipeg, Wilcox is the son of Eldon Wilcox, a CBC Radio announcer, and Leone, “a farm girl who was in love with music.” “Without her, Scotia Festival wouldn’t be here,” Wilcox says, noting his mother came to Halifax to be with him and became personnel supervisor at the Atlantic Symphony. “We started Scotia Festival in her kitchen.”
Growing up, Wilcox was an Elvis Presley fan who loved Dixieland Jazz and collected Louis Armstrong records.
A keen athlete, he opted not to take up Michigan State’s invitation to play varsity basketball because he discovered the school had a very different approach to the game.
“It felt like a stampede of cattle.”
He started playing clarinet at 18 and two years later was studying in Cleveland with Marcellus, widely considered to be the most influential clarinet teacher of the last half of the 20th century.
Wilcox landed a gig with the Expo ’67 band in Montreal. He then moved to Nova Scotia to play with the Halifax Symphony, which became the Atlantic Symphony.
Marcellus, in Halifax to take part in Wilcox’s Scotia Chamber Players series, suggested launching a chamber-music festival strongly based on education as well as performance.
The first festival in 1980, featuring cellist Lynn Harrell and pianist Browning in Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata, stunned the audience. Marcellus was in tears, asking “What have we done?” another of Wilcox’s favourite quotes.
Docking says access to the festival’s 50 annual shows is what makes it special.
“It’s very Nova Scotian,” says the Australian who moved to Halifax in 2001 with his wife, Jennifer Bain, a musicology professor at Dalhousie University. “If you meet people in the lobby, you talk to them. Audience members talk to the performers. Young artists are billeted. There’s a wonderful, informal collegial community, which doesn’t happen many places.”
The Young Artist Program is another special thing about Scotia Festival, says Docking. “Forty to 50 fantastic young musicians have access to these fabulous performers in coaching and master classes and the performers thrive on it, forming relationships that last years.”
Ehnes agrees, noting he has kept in touch with the young people he met.
Docking is an active solo and chamber musician who plays keyboards with Symphony Nova Scotia. He performed at the opening concert of the Music Room in 2002 and has been involved with both Scotia Festival and the Music Room Chamber Players series for many years, programming 80% of this year’s Chamber Players concerts.
Wilcox started hinting Docking take over the festival about eight years ago.
“It was important to Chris to have someone who knows the Halifax music scene. I’m a come from away, but I’ve been here long enough to know the music scene and what a miracle something like this is. I’ll do my best to see that the festival he built, which is so precious and so wonderful, flourishes,” says Docking.
Ehnes believes Docking is the perfect person to take over “an organization I care very much about. It will be in great hands.”
Wilcox officially retires on July 31 and says he’ll be busy playing squash and bridge, and doing some writing, possibly a memoir.
And  regularly walking those 237 steps to the Music Room.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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