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A Centre for Connection and Creativity Through Music

author: Chris Cameron  

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Westben Celebrates Twenty Years of Concerts at the Barn

TWENTY YEARS AGO, DONNA BENNETT AND BRIAN FINLEY HAD A DREAM TO DEVELOP A SUMMER MUSIC FESTIVAL that would combine classical, jazz, folk, and show music in a welcoming rural setting. The dream hinged on the classic movie line, “Build it and they will come,” so in an era when barns were being dismantled all over Ontario, Donna Bennett and Brian Finley stood in a cornfield and imagined a modern-day barn-raising bee. Backed by enthusiastic supporters from Donna’s hometown of Campbellford and the Trent Hills community, they broke ground in the fall of 1999.

Amidst the spectacular Northumberland countryside, the structure slowly took shape. First and foremost was the siting of the barn. “Brian ran around the field directing the bulldozer to exactly the right spots,” says Donna. “He wanted to make sure that the slope of the field would provide an outdoor seating space for anyone watching from outside the barn.”

The concrete floor was poured by a Campbellford contractor. The timbers were carved by a local artisan and dozens of volunteers worked tirelessly in every type of weather to install the locally milled siding and the refurbished theatre seats. The schedule was so tight that there was not even enough time to get the doors on before the Barn was opened to the public, but by July 2000, a 400-seat timber-framed structure had been raised, housing a rustic but sophisticated concert hall.

“I’ll never forget when Brian walked onto the stage,” says Donna, recalling the Barn’s first concert on July 1, 2000. “The whole audience stood up and gave him a standing ovation. Everyone there knew the incredible community effort it took to make this happen. It was an amazingly joyful day.”

That first season consisted of four weekends of concerts in July. Twenty seasons and over 400 performances later, the diverse cultural events run year round and attract 9,000 visitors annually from all parts of Canada and beyond.

Interaction between artists and audience has always been a staple of performances at Westben. When he’s onstage, Brian can’t pass up a chance to talk to the audience, and sometimes they talk back! Westben has succeeded in producing quality performances without the solemn atmosphere that is a feature of so many musical concerts.

A year of celebratory events is planned for the twentieth season of Concerts at the Barn. Featured artists will include Canadian violinist James Ehnes, opera star Joyce El-Khoury, the Canadian Children’s Opera Company, plus a variety of folk artists and world musicians. There’s also the ever-popular Broadway revue, which this year is ABBA Mia, featuring songs from “Mamma Mia” as well as other ABBA favourites.

Just a year ago, Westben introduced a new strategic plan, reimagining itself as a Centre for Connection and Creativity through Music. The plan envisions Westben as a cultural hub, comprising inter-related programs and activities by partnering with artists and groups locally, provincially, and internationally.

“It’s a convergence of people and ideas flowing in and out,” says Brian. “Instead of a summer music festival supported by year-round events, we imagine a year-round Centre that includes a summer music festival.”

Future years will see the expansion of the summer season into new centres, different types of programming, and innovative cultural experiences.

Combining the raw materials of vision, hard work, talent, and community involvement, Westben has become a sparkling feature of the Canadian arts landscape. In 2017, Donna and Brian received the Order of Canada for their accomplishments. They are both quick to say that they accepted this honour “for the team,” acknowledging the local support Westben continues to receive.

The countryside in Northumberland is alive with growing things, from crops and livestock to honey bees and wildlife – and one barn built in a cornfield just outside Campbellford, which in twenty years has grown into a cultural landmark, a place for artistic innovation, and an enduring tribute to its community.

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