Symphony preparing to offer youth free violin lessons

Maestro Jerome, Summers, Conductor Emeritus, leads the International Symphony Orchestra string section during a performace in the sanctuary of the former Central United Church in Sarnia. Photo courtesy, Lou Parry Photography

Cathy Dobson

Amid a dizzying series of lockdowns and re-openings, the executive director of the Sarnia/Port Huron International Symphony Orchestra (ISO) is anxious to share some good news.

Despite many setbacks, the ISO is launching a new program to provide local kids with free violin lessons as soon as pandemic restrictions allow.

“This is very exciting for us,” says Anthony Wing. “You can’t have a symphony orchestra without strings. If you put a violin in a kid’s hands, they’ll have wonderful memories whether they go on to be great fiddle players or not.”

The free instructional program from orchestra professionals will be a boost for the community, Wing said. “And it’s arriving as the provincial school system’s support for music and art dwindles.”

The ISO is teaming up with a highly successful program known as El Sistema Aeolian out of London, to provide after-school violin lessons, instruments and music for six to 16-year-olds.

The Sarnia El Sistema will be a satellite program, offered at the Aamjiwnaang community centre (call 519-491-2160 to register) and the ISO headquarters on Christina Street (email info@theiso.org).

Sarnia’s Harmony for Youth is also likely to get involved, said Wing.

Young musicians tend to grow up to be adult fans of the symphony and, if the local cross-border organization hopes to thrive, it needs to look to the future, Wing said.

There hasn’t been a live symphony performance in Sarnia since February 2020. The ISO’s 55 or so musicians haven’t been able to rehearse or stage a show together because of complications crossing the border.

Financial support continues to be strong on the U.S side, said Wing, something he can’t say for the Canadian side.

“We are much better supported in Michigan and that’s worrisome,” he said.

Nevertheless, there have been successes in Sarnia during these difficult days of COVID. A well-attended reception was hosted at the downtown ISObar during the South Western International Film Festival in November. A First Friday with Jim Chevalier and the ISO Strings, as well as a charity concert with the Cory James Mitchell Band were squeezed in somewhere between the openings and the closings.

A downtown summertime concert series called Thru the Looking Glass was well received and a cross-border symphony project called the Nexus Chamber Series was shown to an online audience.

The ISO is also close to confirming its new Canadian home at Great Lakes Secondary School, where Wing is in talks to use the new 586-seat auditorium post-pandemic.

Using the Great Lakes’ auditorium appeals because the ISO wants a stronger affiliation with the school system, said Wing. It’s also a large, new venue where the only shortcoming is a lack of sound panels.

The ISO has offered to fundraise the $70,000 needed for sound panels and is about 30% of the way. Without strong sponsorship, the ISO will resume post-pandemic programming focused in the U.S., said Wing.

“But we’re hoping to appeal to the community’s goodwill because we are a unique cross-border entity.”

The ISO has operated on both sides of the border for 64 years and Wing said he refuses to believe that will change.

The Sarnia-Port Huron ISO is one of only three international symphonies in Canada. The others are in Sault Ste. Marie and Fort Frances.

The Arts Journal reflects Sarnia’s cultural community. Send your ideas to cathy.dobson@thesarniajournal.ca.