Victor Sawa left the SSO in 2015. His first season was in 1997.
From Sudbury Living 2007
Despite the challenges, the audience for symphony music has grown in Sudbury. For the past several years the subscription series has sold out and there was a long waiting list for tickets. The new venue can seat about 1,200 people for a concert.
He hopes to grow the orchestra from 45 to as many as 65 players this season.
“The audience is going to hear a quality of music they haven’t heard here.” Sawa says.
He is also enthusiastic about the possibility of the city building a performing arts centre which could seat between 1,500 and 1,800 people.
A performing arts centre would be great for the symphony because it would mean better acoustics, larger audiences, increased revenues, more shows, and more players, he says.
“It would put Sudbury on the map, which is really, really important. Thunder Bay has a 1,200 hall that’s a jewel box. I couldn’t believe Sudbury was bigger and didn’t have a (concert) hall.”
Sawa plays the clarinet
Born in Montreal, Victor Sawa started playing music when he was in Grade 9 and had to share his clarinet with other students. He had enough talent to get a music scholarship at McGill University where he distinguished himself as a clarinetist. Later he graduated with honours with a master’s of music performance from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.
When he was living in Boston, he was a member of the New England Ragtime Ensemble and was involved in resurrecting the work of the legendary turn-of-the 20th century ragtime composer Scott Joplin.
The ensemble was invited to play in the jazz series at the Smithsonian Institute. This led to the group recording an album of ragtime music (Red Back Book) for Capitol Records. “It made a pile of money, sold a million copies in the first week (of release) and won a Grammy,” remembers Sawa.
Marvin Hamlisch, the contemporary American composer, attended one the concerts and was inspired.
Hamlisch adapted Joplin’s The Entertainer (1902) and it was used as the theme music for the 1973 Oscar-winning film The Sting, which starred Robert Redford and Paul Newman. Hamlisch’s adaptation reached No. 3 on the Billboard magazine Hot 100 music chart in 1974.
“I was the clarinetist on The Entertainer,” says Sawa.
“After that (movie), there was a ragtime craze. We were invited to play for the (Gerald Ford) White House, and then we went to Europe. I’ve never seen anything like it before or after.”
Sawa has also been to see the Queen.
He conducted the Centennial Orchestra at the gala performance to celebrate the centennial of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon in 2005. The special guests that evening for the all-star program featuring Colin James, Joni Mitchell and Michael Burgess, were Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip.
Sawa had a 40-minute discussion with the Queen at a lunch during the celebrations.
“She was fascinated about the things behind the scenes that went wrong… She’s a hoot. She comes off serious but she is not that serious.”
This season, Sudbury audiences are being treated to two pop concerts, two classic concerts and a Christmas program of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite.
Sawa prides himself on not being a purist. Traditionally it has been frowned on for orchestra conductors to talk to the audience about the music during the concert.
On the Wednesday prior to a SSO performance, Sawa gives a chat about the music at the main branch of the public library. These are well attended and many young people, the next generation of symphony patrons, attend.
Symphony orchestras around the world are trying to find a magic bullet to attract audiences under the age of 45. The Toronto Symphony, for example, hosts a casual concert series. Tickets for people under the age of 30 are just $10 for the Saturday night series.
The Regina Symphony has attempted to attract a new audience by installing large video screens, like the ones at rock concerts. This brings the audience closer to the performers and highlights solo artists.
“I always hated the mystification of the music…We have to stay current,” Sawa says.
And that means surprising audience once in a while. Sawa is also attempting to marry Nintendo with classical music.
“You get the score, the actual composition of the music from the games,” and the orchestra plays the music live while a computer game is shown on a large screen, he explains.
Don’t expect to have a Nintendo concert anytime soon in Sudbury. It cost about $100,000 to rent the game screens.
‘It always comes down to money,” sighs Sawa.