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  • Paul Van Nest

ROTARY’S FESTIVALS OF MUSIC: 1950 to 1964

We know it now as the Kiwanis Music Festival, but it didn’t start that way; Rotarians hosted the first music festival in Kingston in 1950. Warren Black, as chair of the New Projects Committee, and Dr. George Maybee (non-Rotarian) attended a conference in Niagara Falls on how to organize music festivals in Canada. They returned enthused and at the August 15, 1949 club assembly, the club endorsed the project and Ray McPhee became its first chair. Virtually the entire club membership was on the committee.


On February 13, 1950, a young boy from the United States played a piano solo to open the Eastern Ontario International Rotary Festival of Music in Memorial Hall at City Hall.


A large expense was incurred by bringing adjudicators from Great Britain, but they added legitimacy to the event. The first festival was scheduled for 7 days in February, but disaster struck in the form of a major snowstorm which shut down the city for several days. Consequently, the club incurred a major financial loss. The 1951 Festival was also severely curtailed by a flu epidemic. Choirs, bands, competitors, and audiences just didn’t show up. Another loss for the club. These two calamities almost terminated the project.



The 1952 Festival was cancelled while the club restructured its approach. Rather than drawing adjudicators from England and famed Canadian composers like Dr. Healey Willan of Toronto, they proposed to use local people. Fred Pense was now chair and the 1954 Festival was a success. However, with Fred’s death and the teachers’ concern that the festival was too close to Easter (held in March), there was no festival in 1955.


Past President Dr. George Stirrett took over as chair and the 1956 festival was a success, securing the future of music festivals in Kingston. The 1963 program was labelled the 11th and it appears to be the second last as the minutes of a 1964 Rotary board meeting requested that Eric Bronskill retrieve all the trophies and return them to their sponsors. The Kiwanis Club restarted the music festival in 1973 with Dr. Bob Crowson and Peter Davy as part of the original team, giving the festival its current name: the Kiwanis Music Festival.


Rotarians were very proud of their role in the Festival of Music. One observed that it was “a project that gave thousands of people the opportunity to become more proficient in the field of music. From the little tot to the adult, the festivals had furnished instruction, inspiration and enjoyment, and provided Rotarians with another opportunity to practice their motto ‘Service Above Self’.” And another observation: “The Rotary Club through the Festivals of Music had reached into more homes than any other club activity had done.”

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