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Burt Wathen, centre, with pianists Martha Argerich and Nicolas van Poucke.

Raoul Manuel Schnell

In the spring of 2017, the great Argentine pianist Martha Argerich performed a duo concert in a 150-seat recital hall in Lunenburg, N.S. Her only other North American engagement that season was at Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall, a Frank Gehry-designed venue big enough to seat 2,265 people – roughly the population of Lunenburg.

Why did Argerich play fishing-town Lunenburg? She was there to teach a master class. But here’s the thing: Argerich, as a rule, does not teach master classes.

So, again, what brought Argerich to Lunenburg? Hint: It wasn’t the mackerel escabèche or even the Acadian wild-sturgeon caviar.

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The answer is Burt Wathen and the Lunenburg Academy of Music Performance (or LAMP, for the acronym-inclined). The LAMP founder and artistic director, who doggedly pursued Argerich to teach and perform until she agreed, opened the international classical musical school in 2014 with the mission of “creating the next generation of outstanding performing artists within the walls of a Canadian architectural treasure." The academy is something of an east-coast version of the Banff Centre, plus high-sea views.

“I’m looking out my window now over the back harbour, and it’s gorgeous,” says Wathen, speaking from the Lunenburg Academy, a three-storey wooden Victorian building notable for its bold paint job and hill-top location. “I have a pair of eagles flying over my head, playing with the wind.”

Wathen is one of the founding members of Symphony Nova Scotia and a long-time principal violist of the Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna in Italy. In 2013, he learned that the Lunenburg Academy building (a long-time public school and beloved landmark) was looking for new tenants. For more than 20 years he had dreamed of a postgraduate music school, and now the town and the magnificent facility intrigued him. “I was getting near retirement,” explains Wathen, 65. “A school seemed like a good project to keep me out of trouble.”

His proposal for LAMP was enthusiastically accepted and supported. “The industry and the town coughed up enough money to get us started to show the world what we could do,” says Wathen, who still retains a residence in Italy with his wife.

With the help of pianist Walter Delahunt (a friend of Argerich) and the internationally renowned flutist, composer and conductor Robert Aitken, the academy hit the ground running allegro-quick. As with Wathen, both Delahunt and Aitken are native Nova Scotians. “You can see the LAMP faculty is well steeped in rum,” quips Wathen, who was born in Sydney, but raised in New Brunswick.

Known as the birthplace of the schooner Bluenose, Lunenburg is a thriving seasonal tourist place with a strong artistic bent. The annual Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival is one of the best and most picturesque in the country. The recent revitalization of its opera house brought Gordon Lightfoot to town. But what LAMP offers is a draw in the tough months: A fall session brings in students and recitals from September to December; a spring session does the same from March until June.

Providing highly focused one-to-two-week sessions and longer residencies overseen by an ever-changing faculty of ace performing artists (currently including double bassist Joel Quarrington, soprano Suzie LeBlanc and jazzer Roberto Occhipinti), LAMP has attracted students from 25 countries and every Canadian province.

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For his next trick, Wathen has recruited the Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer, due to arrive in Lunenburg for a pair of recitals in March, 2019. “It’s a big deal. We’re very excited,” Wathen says. “I think he’s the world’s greatest living violinist.”

That’s quite a claim. He might get an argument there.

“That’s okay,” Wathen says. “Because I’m the boss. And that’s why Gidon Kremer is coming here.”

Well, then. Bravo.

Know of an unsung arts and culture hero who deserves wider acclaim? Send suggestions to bwheeler@globeandmail.com

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