Orchestra on the beach: PRISMA in Powell River

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Two week of concerts on the beach and around town

World-class and aspiring musicians come together to make beautiful music at PRISMA.  
Photo by PRISMA


POWELL RIVER, B.C. - Sitting on a park bench on Willingdon Beach in Powell River, Michael Matthews is telling me about a magical night where he was drawn out to his deck when he heard the sweet sounds of violin music floating over the waters of Okeover Arm on the edge of Desolation Sound. Share this page on Twitter.

“Hearing it played unexpectedly, in the middle of the night, in that setting, was a skin-trembling experience,” says the president of PRISMA (Pacific Region International Summer Music Academy).

Matthews, who retired to Powell River about five years ago, was drawn to volunteer with the popular musical festival when he was looking to get involved in the community.

“My musical background is that of a concert-goer … but we attended PRISMA, then I volunteered and found myself sucked in because it’s a such wonderful event.”

When Matthews heard the concerto that night, he was hosting five PRISMA violin students, and the violinist who captivated him on that evening outside of his family’s Sunshine Coast home, eventually went on to win the concert concerto competition.

Laura Wallace, left, teaches Rebecca Bollwitt how to play Hot Cross Buns. on the violin. 
Photo by Rebecca Bollwitt

Soon after hearing Matthews' story, I’m on the pier with local luthier, Laura Wallace, learning how to play “Hot Cross Buns” on the violin, feeling like a third grader. I’m certain the sounds echoing along the promenade that morning were a lot less moving than Matthews’ memorable violin concerto experience.

Feet planted on the sand, I relaxed my elbow and pointed the pinky finger of my bow hand up as though I was having in high tea, as instructed by Wallace.

“A 20-year old at PRISMA probably would have been playing for fifteen years, and put in 10,000 hours, so let’s see what we can get you to do in five minutes,” Wallace says laughing as I rested my chin and stroked the strings. “Hot. Cross. Buns.”

Seagulls scattered.

Students earn their chops at PRISMA

Whether it’s a serenade above the emerald waters of Desolation Sound, or a fantastic concert attended by thousands at PRISMA hosted at Willingdon Beach, Matthews loves everything about the organization’s world-class music program. There are two sides to it - PRISMA the academy and PRISMA the summer festival.

Maya Grace is an aspiring violinist and PRISMA student.
Photo by Rebecca Bollwitt

PRISMA was founded in 2012 and it’s where students join to form the Pacific Philharmonic with first-rate guest faculty from varied backgrounds and orchestras. The festival features five public concerts, including three full orchestra symphony concerts, the Guest Artist Gala Opening and Chamber Concerts, and the Concerto Competition Semi-Finals and Finals.

The students in the academy are, “on the threshold of becoming professional musicians,” says Matthews. The experience they gain through PRISMA helps them get jobs and even get hired by symphony orchestras.

The public side of PRISMA is the annual festival and the work of Director Arthur Arnold, music director of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, who brings music to all corners of Powell River.

The annual festival will please your ear buds.
Photo by PRISMA

“He takes it into the elementary schools for the kids, brings students into the theatre, they get to hear master classes, the public gets to attend master classes and hear amazing teachers teach great students and really get some insight into what’s going on.”

Wallace, in her first year as PRISMA’S official luthier, will support the string players. She’ll be there every day to check in with students during the two weeks of PRISMA.

She’ll teach them how they can make their instrument sound its best. “These instruments are really complicated and delicate, and finicky, and a lot of them have little things wrong with their setup.”

For the public, the concerts are the main event.

“The concerts are absolutely stupendous,” Matthews says. “I’ve been to concerts all around the world at major concert halls, and I don't think I’ve ever experienced the audience enthusiasm and reaction that you get here.”

PRISMA concerts often attract more than 5,000 people. 
Photo by PRISMA

The students also enjoy the feedback. “Talking to the students they get the same buzz from it. They’d all performed in New York, in Baltimore, some quite big concerts and they’d never had the audience feedback that they’d had here.”

PRISMA on the Beach includes a free outdoor concert, that last year involved Navy ships blasting canons during the 1812 overture. Something equally impressive is planned for this year, but it’s yet to be revealed.

“I suspect that a large proportion of the audience would never dream of going to a concert in a concert hall and probably never have,” Matthews says. “They’re hearing great music, played wonderfully and it’s the whole atmosphere that’s just marvelous.”

Musicians come from all over the world want to be part of PRISMA, which is putting Powell River on the map.

“We’re getting an established reputation,” says Matthews. People often just knew it as a mill town. “Now, the reaction is ‘Oh yes, that’s the place where they have those wonderful music festivals.’ “

From the start, PRISMA has recruited international musicians and word is spreading. Matthews says they are oversubscribed with applicants this year, and bringing in 225 students of which 70 to 90 will be accepted and granted placement as part of the full orchestra.

Musicians from all over the world apply to be part of PRISMA every year. 
Photo by PRISMA

The “big buzz” occasions according to Matthews are, PRISMA on the Beach (Wednesday, June 15, 2016) - where I will absolutely not be making my violin debut but I would love to be one of the fortunate 5,000 concertgoers in attendance.

The other is the Closing Gala Concert (Saturday, June 25, 2016).

“The buzz from the audience there is just tremendous and with the applause at the end, you get the sense they could go on forever.”

(Rebecca Bollwitt is an award-winning Vancouver-based blogger known as Miss 604)

If you go

Interested in checking out the Sunshine Coast? Visit SunshineCoastCanada.com for trip-planning ideas.

Need more inspiration? Find out more about the "Hidden Gems" of the Sunshine Coast. Find out more hidden gems here.

Check out our Festival Overview and see who is preforming at this year's PRISMA festival.

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