Arthur Arnold made his conducting debut with the visiting Moscow Symphony Orchestra in 2001 at Amsterdam's prestigious Concertgebouw, where the conductor famously descends through the audience on a staircase from the balcony level, then through the orchestra and over to the podium, surrounded by applause and anticipation. It was an extraordinary moment for Mr. Arnold, who, as a 14-year-old, had snuck into the same hall – darkened – and stood on the podium, dreaming of this.
"I was realizing well it might be one time, so I'd better enjoy it," he recalls of that night. "And that's maybe why it went so well." Mr. Arnold was soon appointed principal guest conductor; this year he was named chief conductor of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra.
On Thursday evening, at a waterfront park in Powell River, Mr. Arnold once again approached a stage for the first time – in this case, it was a wooden Rotary Club bandshell, amid booths selling kettle corn, fresh cut fries and local crafts in the soft rain.
"[This is] probably the first time that a Stradivarius made it to Powell River," he told the inaugural Celebration of the Senses event, which saw a crowd-pleasing performance that included tastes of Rossini, Mozart and Elgar.
This public performance was a key moment in the launch of the new Pacific Region International Summer Music Academy, or PRISMA. More than 60 advanced music students from around the world have travelled to the remote B.C. community to learn from masters such as violinists Herbert Greenberg (playing that 1685 Strad) and Soyoung Yoon, and of course Mr. Arnold himself. The period is intense, with master classes, audition training, rehearsals and performances (including two concerts Saturday).
"It's been fantastic so far," said Fiona Chisholm, 23, who studies music at the University of Lethbridge. "You get a real insight as to what a professional career would be like."
PRISMA was born out of the musical ashes of another program – SOAP, the Symphony Orchestra Academy of the Pacific, which was run by the Powell River Academy of Music. The Academy decided last year to suspend SOAP, despite pleas from community members, who even offered to run it. Not willing to let the important cultural event – and economic driver (a 2009 report estimated SOAP generated $1-million in new revenues for the region) – disappear, a new group quickly formed last fall. They had just seven months to launch their new academy.
"As soon as we heard, we hit the ground running and it was all hands on deck," says Paul Schachter, PRISMA's secretary-treasurer. "And we're still running."
The group was led by Mr. Arnold, who was born in the Netherlands, became a cellist – and later, a conductor. He first came to Powell River with the Seoul National Symphony Orchestra in 2000 to work with the International Choral Kathaumixw festival; he co-founded and became music director of SOAP in 2004; and began working with composer Tobin Stokes, who is from Powell River, in 2005. At a rehearsal, Mr. Arnold met Mr. Stokes' sister, Kim Stokes. Cue the harp. Mr. Arnold and Ms. Stokes now divide their time between Powell River and Amsterdam. There are frequent travels elsewhere – Romania recently – and of course, to Moscow.
Mr. Arnold's reputation, international connections and gutsy tenacity – he even asked Elton John to come to Powell River – were instrumental in getting PRISMA off the ground, attracting high-calibre students and luring first-rate faculty from around the world.
"At the beginning I wasn't interested because it was so far," said Ms. Yoon, 28, who is from South Korea and now lives in Switzerland. "But Arthur convinced me: 'You'll have a great time, it's beautiful here and the people are so nice and you'll have a lot of fun.' So I said, 'Okay, let's go.' "
Whether in the Russian capital or this mill town on B.C.'s Sunshine Coast, Mr. Arnold believes musicians have a responsibility. Thursday morning, he told his students he was disappointed to see so many yawning at rehearsal, and reminded them that they weren't in Powell River to party, but to learn – and perform. He wasn't chastising them, just trying to stress their obligation.
"I often tell the musicians in these orchestras: You don't know who needs your music desperately tonight. Whose life depends on your music. Because it's such a powerful thing. You can go to the psychiatrist or whatever, but this is going to go deep inside," he explained to me afterward.
Mr. Arnold felt a lot of insecurity and stress as a cellist, and as an orchestra leader – and teacher – he encourages his musicians to take joy from what they're doing. Students (who pay $500 tuition for the two-week program, plus room and board – or they can camp, as Ms. Chisholm is doing with two other students) should leave with not just new tools for practising or auditioning for that orchestra job, he says, but also "how to be a healthy spirit that can survive in the sometimes violent world of classical music."
Students will be students, of course. They fool around in the halls (although, their version of fooling around might involve five students gathered around one double bass, improvising); one student, during a mesmerizing rehearsal with Ms. Yoon, sat in the audience playing Angry Birds on her smartphone (others wept).
But by that night, they were ready to go – and along with the faculty musicians, knocked everyone's soggy socks off at the beachfront park.
"I love how this [orchestra] is so high-class and world-renowned," said Anne Parkinson, who moved to Powell River from Victoria a year-and-a-half ago. "It's not what you think of as small town."