author: Tom Cruickshank, photograph by: Melanie Elliot
Watershed country is full of accomplished folks. You’d never guess who lives around the corner and down the lane
NOT LONG AGO, it was announced that Donna Bennett and Brian Finley – the couple at the heart of the Westben Arts Festival in Campbellford – were awarded the Order of Canada, joining the likes of Michael Ondaatje, Don McKellar, Eric Peterson, Lawrence Hill and other recent inductees honoured for their contributions to their craft. Westben, which began on a whim in 2000, is now an anchor of the local music scene, and the OC is well deserved.
Funny, it might never have happened had Donna not gotten pregnant in 1990.
Back then, the pair, who met while studying voice and piano at the University of Toronto, were still relative newlyweds, but their performing careers often found them far apart from each other. “We finally settled in London, where Donna was at the Royal College Opera School,” Brian recalls, “while I was doing international piano competitions.” But after so many years abroad and on the road, Donna felt a tug to have her baby in Campbellford, where she could be amid family and familiar surroundings. In fact, she turned down a chance to sing Christine in The Phantom of the Opera in Vienna so she could come home to start her family.
“Home” was the 50-acre hobby farm where she grew up, just outside of Campbellford. (Her family’s business was Bennett’s Home Furnishings, still going strong after 93 years.) “It was only supposed to be a six-month stay,” Donna says, “and then we planned to return to England.” But it wasn’t long until they reconsidered their options. “I loved being at home again,” says the bright-eyed soprano. “And Brian quickly embraced small-town life, and I started doing recitals closer to home.” Then the couple was part of a local production of Jesus Christ Superstar, which sold an astounding 2,000 tickets. “Its success made us wonder if maybe we could make a living in music right here in Campbellford,” says Brian. It helped to have performed at the Olympic Music Festival near Seattle, where fine chamber music is presented in a small-town locale. Inspired that something similar might work at home, Westben was born.
They launched it without focus groups or market research and, from the start in 2000, the goal was to bring the classics, opera, jazz, choral music and show tunes to a local and regional audience – and put Campbellford on the map. “Most of all, we wanted to do it in a relaxed, rural environment,” Brian says. Their venue is no stuffy concert stage, but Donna and Brian’s farm and a timber-frame “barn” they built in time for the opening performance. It’s an indoor/outdoor music hall, designed not only to take advantage of its pastoral locale, but with good acoustics and sightlines, too.
Donna’s “baby” is now 27 years old and there was one more born a few years after the first. As she recounts the milestones, you can’t blame her if she wonders where all the time has gone. “I can’t believe it, but this summer, Westben will embark on its 17th season,” she says. Likewise, she and Brian could never have imagined that they would be able to count themselves among the Companions of the Order of Canada. It’s been an amazing ride, all the more rewarding because the road led back home.