We have enjoyed a stellar event at prison! Yes, classical music has gone behind bars to reach into the inner depths of many men who are incarcerated. And this has happened because of a fairly new foundation called Looking at the Stars, an initiative based on the hope that a quality performance of such world class music can have a profound affect upon the hearts souls and minds of such men, many of whom have never had or taken the opportunity to be moved and inspired by such a musical experience.
Yes, on two separate occasions at both the minimum and medium sites of Beaver Creek Institution during the approach to Christmas when many of “those on the inside” are especially lonely or sad or downhearted, some beautiful and really breathtaking music in the form of a Toronto Symphony Orchestra string trio, captured the attention of two ‘sold-out’ audiences and transported us to another place. I was there and can attest to the attentiveness of the auditors as they were caught up in a musical odyssey that set them free, so to speak, for the duration of the concert. It was personally enjoyable and uplifting, and as someone working towards what is called ‘the rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders’, I can witness to the rapture that many of the men felt and expressed in their own testimony after the event. Yes, it was an odyssey as you can imagine with music from such luminaries as Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Vivaldi – just exceptional.
All the best,
Aumonier catholique / Catholic Chaplain
Établissement de Beaver Creek / Beaver Creek Institution
Service correctionnel du Canada /Correctional Service of Canada
This final musical gift of the year was not part of our original schedule, but the overwhelming response to the November 24 event at the BCI Minimum facility reinforced the need to present this gift to their neighbours at the Medium facility. The String Trio from the TSO not only agreed to come back to Gravenhurst two weeks after the Minimum facility concert, but considerably enhanced the program.
The expected turnout of at least 150 inmates was promising. We decided to do the event in the gym as a result (chapel would not have accommodated such a large crowd), but an unforeseen last minute accident with the water supply and fire alarm system forced us to perform in the chapel – a great place for a chamber performance, but limited in space. A snowstorm warning was yet another reason to reconsider the idea, but we were already on our way to the event.
We ended up with approximately 100 inmates packed like sardines in the main chapel and another 20 standing in the kitchen. Another 50 would keep coming in and out the front doors until the guards had to close them.
Prison world is very complex – relationships, clans, interests and power groups, habits, communications culture, tense and complicated relationships with staff. No different from the world outside, but not easy to detect and understand during such a short visit. As I performed a function of doorman, I could feel it all around me – suspicion and animosity, curiosity and frustration, anger and sarcasm, mistrust and exasperation. Very different from being a part of the audience inside the performance area… and a great lesson to learn. These observations relate to those inmates whose hearts we have yet to reach. There are many.
The extraordinarily rich program (from Mozart to Vivaldi, from Borodin to Bruch, from Tchaikovsky to Beatles and Carlos Gardel) was eclectic, but consistently a first class repertoire. I was later told, that the entire Muskoka region seldom (if ever) gets a chance to experience it. As always, the music was complemented by comments, stories and anecdotes – all about classical music.
Q&A was content rich. Inmates were well prepared. The conversation between musicians and the crowd was long and quite excellent. Katrina Chitty explained why she switched from violin to viola during the performance, and Mark Skazinetsky disclosed the origins of his medieval Italian violin. The inmates were fascinated by these stories.
As the snowflakes were elegantly falling and covering the ground, the encores – sounds from Nutcracker (Tchaikovsky) and Four Seasons (Vivaldi) – were transporting the prison and inmates to a New Years celebration party in tsarist Russia, closer to the magic of the Christmas tree and to the sunny Italian vineyards on the Mediterranean. It was a magical experience.
Happy Holidays to all.
Our Anniversary (#10!!!) Event at Correctional Services Canada and #4 at Beaver Creek. And it has exceeded every expectation on the final day of Restorative Justice Week.
From soon-to-be-paroled Shawn Walker’s institution-made most delicious cake to Mark’s Skazinetsky’s witty introduction of a composer-turned chemist Borodin, to Katrina’s Chitty’s short story about Beethoven’s gift of hearing music while being deaf to Igor Gefter’s fascinating story about co-existing cultures and Jewish Kol Nidrei by a German composer, to our most dedicated supporter, Nancy Kinsman, BCI Warden’s very personal and deeply emotional closing comments (Nancy’s spontaneous speech was delivered with incredible passion and grace and was truly extraordinary) and finally to a profoundly warm, friendly and genuine conversation period with inmates looking distracted, relaxed, happy, open, and friendly.
String Trio, comprised from the TSO musicians created a unique atmosphere of celebration and joy for an attentive, respectful and fully focused audience. Even Dmitri’s opening and closing remarks (as well as his performance as a dedicated doorman throughout the concert) were effective this evening – short and spontaneous.
Chaplain Douglas Parrett was instrumental in organizing this Event and getting the performance hall packed (over 100 inmates showed up and stayed, some stood throughout the 75 minute show). Familiar and new faces – Helen, Paul, Brian, Branka (staff and volunteers). Mixed, yet very unanimous solid crowd, sharing the same values and the same interests – sharing their spiritual warmth with inmates and looking together with them at the stars.
Fantastic, illuminating atmosphere. Powerful, liberating, distracting impact of classical music on ALL present. It felt like there was not one single inmate there – everyone present was carried away by the melodies…. Everyone was absent from prison, which felt like a home on November 24.
This is an excerpt from the inmates letter I received today. It will best express what I am not able to:
….”The idea of bringing classical music to help us console, heal and reform is ingenious. I was in a complete state of serenity. The magical sounds coming from the trio of strings was so soothing and therapeutic to me. I would close my eyes and find myself in a better place. Other times, I would survey the room and be amazed to see the expressions on the faces of other inmates, ones of astonishment, delight and vitality. A gloomy and dark place was now an illuminating place of hope and promise. Needless to say, your efforts were an astounding success, welcomed and appreciated…”
Security would not allow photos of the tapestry of forest just next to the parking lot outside the prison, but we already did. Think about those on the other side of the barbed wire and don’t feel restricted.
Julien, a 30-something with dark plastic glasses, a hat and a piercing on his lower lip was ahead of our concert. He could have not missed his chance to use a real grand piano (as he never even saw one until this sunny afternoon). Now Julien was busy playing Bach and Mozart compositions on it. He did not bother asking for permission. He just walked into the gym and went straight to the instrument – Esmonde-White Grand Piano. All of us, including Lukas were quite astonished. It was not about how he played, rather that he played at all and that he enjoyed it. He never took lessons or owned an instrument or read notes. He played “from his ear”. Actually, he did not give a damn about who was around him. He will be paroled in January and has promised to reach out then.
He then sat in the front row next to an inmate, who would not be paroled after 42 years of incarceration and, as his neighbor and another several dozen in the audience, would not move throughout the entire performance.
Julien’s “recital” was a shock, a gift, a delight, and a discovery. No one laughed. Professional filmmakers would have envied the unfolding scenario. It was now Lukas’ turn to take full possession of the instrument.
English is not very popular in this part of Canada and neither of us spoke French, except our grand piano, which was manufactured and delivered in Quebec and which was outstanding. Maybe that’s why Drummond in October did not seem to be as friendly and hospitable as Archambault in April. We felt that we imposed ourselves on our hosts. Mel Brooks would have shot the legendary episode of Dr. Frankenstein’s arrival to his horrific grandfather’s castle in Transylvania (from “Young Frankenstein”) in Drummond. Doctor and his entourage did not expect to be “welcomed” by Frau Blucher…. We were fortunate to have Oliver Esmond White with us, who kindly agreed to translate and thus much improved my clumsy traditional introduction.
It wasn’t funny. Confused and stressed out we were awaiting inmates in the gym, which was set up for about 100 of them (according to our hostess, 90 signed up) and about 60 showed up. There some other people in the gym – half a dozen of ladies (we did not dare to ask who they were and none of them stayed behind to talk to us, when it was over). We were told to get started without being introduced and had to obey the order. The performance began.
Lukas played Chopin, Prokofiev, Ravel, and Desyatnikov. Inmates were listening extremely well (as usual); some of them – without fidgeting or movement, almost breathlessly. Unfortunately, humble inmates positioned themselves in a circle (front and back rows were filled, but the middle of the hall was empty). It was an incredibly awkward place to perform, but Lukas did his best and the audience reacted accordingly. A few questions were asked during the event, but not as many as usual. About a dozen of inmates came to us with feedback forms and with their thanks – they seemed emotional and sincere. This was our prize and our win. Our time was up. We felt we had to go and to go quickly.
Our second Quebec performance is now history. Lessons learned will make our next return to Drummond much more rewarding and fulfilling – sign up for our email newsletter!
The Grand Yamaha is delivered and tuned by Mr. Gerald from Piano Esmonde White – our new partners from Montreal. We will spend 5 incredible hours the next day in Montreal with their unique leader – a piano inventor-scientist-researcher-visionary, Mr. Oliver Esmonde White and his team. Our partnership will not be about piano rentals. It will be about the future of the instrument.
In the meantime, Cathy Galineau, Warden, welcomes our quartet and speaks about her remarkable career at CSC, about Collins Bay and about her love of classical music. As every good musician before the concert, Barry Shiffman is freezing and Cathy graciously brings several portable heaters and rescues the Event.
Inmate Committee members are setting up refreshments. The performance is taking place in the prison area, which serves as the inmates and visitors meeting space. It is relatively cozy and perfectly suits the chamber performance.
About 60 inmates and half a dozen volunteers as well as the prison chaplain fill the hall. The performance starts with traditional inspirational, but a bit too long of a speech from Dmitri. Then Barry Shiffman takes over and music of Brahms, Bruch, Part, Prokofiev, and others fill the hall. Inmates gradually relax and questions to performers follow. Inmates speak about their feelings, childhood memories, classical music, composers. Musicians are surprised and inspired. They each tell their story about becoming musicians. Each story is different. Yolanda wanted to calm her brother down and could not think of a better way, than to use a violin. The performers did not expect such profound and honest reactions from the audience. Musicians will later tell me, that they have never experienced such profound joy and satisfaction, never in 22 years of professional career, according to Joseph Johnson.
No photo taking, no video shooting. No audit trail of hope, joy and optimism on the faces of the inmates. Such are CSC rules. We understand and respect them. But rules and … “laws must change,” as per legendary blues guitarist John Mayall (title song from 1969 LP “The Turning Point). One day, perhaps…
Stan finishes his painting – a flying keyboard in a tapestry of colours – sounds, emotions perhaps? Painting will stay behind – it is the property of the Inmate Committee now..
Live interaction between all parties takes place – cookies and soft drinks are being served by the Inmate Committee Chairman himself. Inmates speak with musicians. Musicians do not want to leave. Who can distinguish a visitor from a resident? The walls of the prison and the walls dividing two parties seem to disappear.
We are leaving, but a small group of inmates are staying behind. They are looking at the stars.
Looking at the Stars Foundation is presenting a very special musical gift to Syrian refugees on Sunday, October 15, 2017, at 7:30 p.m. The concert will be presented in the Social Hall at the Ismaili Centre, 49 Wynford Dr, North York, ON. Donations gratefully accepted to support this exciting project. Visit https://lookingatthestars.org/donate/ for more information.
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