Through Semiahmoo Strings

Semiahmoo Strings celebrate 25 years

Youth ensemble founders reflect on a quarter century of music on the Peninsula

There’s nothing like a 25th anniversary to underline the passage of time.

Cellist/teacher/arranger Harold Birston still remembers early concerts by the Semiahmoo Strings in which some members of the youth ensemble – now long grown and with children of their own – were so tiny their feet didn’t even reach the floor as they sat earnestly bowing violins.

The public has two opportunities to get involved in the music and memories when the Strings celebrate with a 25th anniversary concert next Monday and Tuesday (June 16-17) at 7:30 p.m. at the Wheelhouse Theatre, Earl Marriott Secondary, 157551 16 Ave.

Under the baton of Harold’s wife, orchestra founder and violin teacher Carla, the young members will be augmented by Semiahmoo Strings alumni, some of them returning from as far afield as Nova Scotia and London, England, and a contingent of professional wind and brass players brought in for the anniversary concerts (should strike action close off the school theatre, back-up venues have been generously offered by Mount Olive Lutheran Church for June 16, and Peace Portal Alliance on June 17 – for updates and ticket information check or call 604-538-1460.)

Harold acknowledges that he and Carla feel “honoured” to have guided the musical discovery of generations of students.

The Semiahmoo Strings may not have grown much numerically – the group has always averaged out at around 25 members – but it’s certainly grown in ambition, confidence and willingness to accept a challenge.

Some traditionalists may still decry a repertoire that, in addition to classics by Mozart, Beethoven, Faure, Schubert and Holst, has included popular movie and TV themes by John Williams, Ennio Morricone and Henri Mancini, challenging suites from the world of opera (Bizet’s Carmen) and Broadway scores (Bernstein’s West Side Story) and even traditional and contemporary jazz.

But the rhythmic flexibility, concept of attack and phrasing and understanding of all musical genres members have gleaned from the experience is a success story now bordering on the legendary.

“The way we look at it is that there’s no need to apologize for there being no boundaries whatsoever,” Harold said.

The enthusiasm of generations of members – usually drawn from the ranks of students of Carla and Harold – has led to successive bar-raisings that have generally redefined expectations of what young musicians between the ages of six and 18 can accomplish.

The upcoming concert is no exception. For the uninitiated, the youth orchestra – and their special guests – can be expected to present exciting and well-nigh professional performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, featuring concert master and already noted soloist Lucy Wang.

For the latter it’s a farewell performance before she heads to Los Angeles to study with Martin Beaver at the renowned Colburn School.

“A friend of mine said that for her to get into that school is like winning the lottery – there’s a huge waiting list for places,” Harold said. He noted that Wang’s already made a debut as a soloist with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, with more performances scheduled for July, and will return for a concerto performance in the 2014-15 season as winner of the VSO School’s Concerto Competition.

“I think if she auditioned for the Toronto Symphony she could start her career tomorrow,” Harold said.

The performance will also feature two movements of Harold’s own composition, Four Seasons (Irish Spring and Winnipeg Winter) performed by the ensemble’s young feeder group, the Demi-Semiahmoo Strings.

The Semiahmoo Strings magic has extended beyond the group itself. It’s also been part of the continuing success of the Surrey Symphony Society (with Carla as conductor of the Intermediate Strings) and is now exerting a very definite influence in Vancouver – both Carla and Harold’s teaching and methods have become a cornerstone of the new VSO School of Music, with the blessing of Maestro Bramwell Tovey.

It’s a far cry from the early days when Carla Birston took over some 15 students from a violin teacher in White Rock who was transitioning into another career. The Birstons moved to the city and started building the Semiahmoo Strings from the ground up in 1989 to provide invaluable ensemble experience for their students.

“I was the conductor intially, for about about a year, but Carla was giving me a lot of coaching on the tempos,” Harold recalled.

“I said ‘you should take over’ – without any malice. And ever since then, the Semiahmoo Strings has succeeded far beyond our expectations.”

Keys to the success has been the professionalism the Birstons have modelled for their ensembles, and what Harold terms “the passing of the torch” from older to younger students.

Right from the beginning it has been evident in the manner, body language and focus of even the youngest players. The pre-concert placing music on stands, tuning and adjustment of instruments, and careful scanning of parts has always been consistent with the modus of much older musicians, an impression that once moved this writer to describe the ensemble as “Honey, I Shrunk the VSO” – many years before the current connection.

Actual collaboration with professional musicians has been an active feature of the ensemble over the past 15 years with such musicians as baritone Alex Dobson, pianist Dietmar Schmuecker, the Miles Black Trio (including bassist Jodi Proznick and drummer Craig Scott), trumpeters Jim Littleford and Tom Shorthouse, percussionist Phil Crewe and viola players Marie-Claude Brunet and Gillian Gjernes among those enjoying every minute of working with the Strings.

For their part, the young musicians have learned not only from the application and professional preparation of their guests, but also all the possibilities of creative interpretation, Harold said.


“It’s been of great mutual benefit,” he added.



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