"It looks like a barn, sounds like a music hall." That's how conductor Daniel Warren describes the barn–cum–concert venue at the Westben Centre for Connection and Creativity through Music, located near the village of Campbellford in the heart of Northumberland County, about halfway between Toronto and Ottawa.
According to artistic director Brian Finley, who, with his wife, Donna Bennett, co-founded Westben on the 50-acre farm where she grew up, the theatre's pastoral setting appeals to the high-calibre musicians who come to perform, as well as the weekenders and day trippers who enjoy incorporating live music and theatre into their sojourns on the Ontario countryside. "The barn seats 400 people and the doors open up," notes Finley, "so while you're sitting down in the movie-style seats, you can see the meadows, the birds and the pond."
Bennett spent her childhood on "the Wests' farm," which was how the property was known locally, in recognition of the family who lived there from 1886 until the Bennett family purchased it in 1965. "I grew up on this farm dreaming of being an opera singer," recalls Bennett. "I studied voice at the University of Toronto, completed my master's in Munich and at the opera school at the Royal College [of Music] in London." Bennett and her husband, who is a concert pianist, relocated back to the family farm to raise their first child and ended up nurturing a whole lot more.
A production of Jesus Christ Superstar (shown above) and Canadian singer Emilie Claire Barlow (below). (Photo Credit: SUPPLIED)
"We believe in bringing people together through music and having fun while we strive for excellence," explains Bennett. For their efforts, the couple were awarded the Order of Canada in 2017 for their "dedication to fostering the performing arts, musical education and community building in rural Ontario" – or, as Bennett says, "for turning a cornfield into a music centre." The fields of Northumberland County have been alive with the sounds of Puccini, Mozart and jazz since those barn doors opened in 2000. Performers have included pianist Angela Hewitt, jazz artists Brian Barlow and the late Peter Appleyard, and renowned opera tenor Richard Margison.
Bennett is particularly excited about the upcoming season, which features Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (June 9–10, 15–17), starring tenor Adam Fisher and mezzo-soprano Kim Dafoe, joined by a cast of singers from the local area. "Involving the community in our music program is key to our mandate," says Bennett. Later in the season, there will be performances by comics Colin Mochrie (Whose Line Is It Anyway?) and Debra McGrath, folk singer Sarah Harmer, jazz artist Michael Kaeshammer and the award-winning Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra.
For visitors who can't get enough barnyard time, there's also the 4th Line Theatre in Millbrook, a 45-minute drive from Campbellford. The farm–turned–theatre centre is entering its 27th season on the fifth-generation family homestead inherited by Founder and Creative Director Robert Winslow. The plays on the mainstage, known as Winslow Farm, are rooted in Canadian history. Managing Artistic Director Kim Blackwell's 2018 summer season features Crow Hill: The Telephone Play, about the advent of the telephone in a village, and award-winning playwright Judith Thompson's Who Killed Snow White? Most productions at 4th Line Theatre are staged in the barnyard. Road-trippers heading to the Kawarthas Northumberland area this summer can take advantage of the theatre's Rural Routes and Scenic Stages packages, which allow them to customize theatre outings, restaurants, accommodations and other activities in Peterborough, Millbrook and Port Hope.
Galerie Q offers fine-art enthusiasts exhibits showcasing the works of Canadian masters, like Yvon Lemieux (above) and Olga Muzychko (below). (Photo Credit: SUPPLIED)
Passing through Port Hope this spring? Canadian funny guy Ron James performs at the historic Cameco Capital Arts Theatre (March 25–26), followed by the Toronto-based tribute band Beach Party Boys (April 27) and a production of Fiddler on the Roof (May 20–June 24). The Academy Theatre in nearby Lindsay hosts Pearls – A Carole King Tribute on March 28, while Juno Award winner Bruce Cockburn takes to the stage for his Bone on Bone Tour on May 4.
For fine-art enthusiasts, Galerie Q in Cavan (on County Road 10, a 20-minute drive from Peterborough) presents a series of spring exhibitions featuring the works of Canadian masters (with a focus on French-Canadian artists), as well as those by emerging artists. The exhibitions include a solo show by Diane Desmarais, "Figures of Intimacy"/"Figures d'Intimité" (March 3–31); "Youthfulness of Spring"/"La Jeunesse du printemps," landscapes and floral scenes by contemporary artists (March 17–31); the Canadian wilderness–inspired "Into the Woods" (April 7–30); "Recollections," in which Yvon Lemieux captures his earliest memories of rural Quebec on canvas (May 11–31); and "Inspired by Borges," a solo exhibit by Olga Muzychko that pays tribute to her Argentine favourite short-story writer (June 2–30).
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