One of the guiding lights of the south Island music scene and Sooke’s most beloved citizens has died.
Norman Nelson, founder of Sooke Philharmonic Orchestra and the Sooke Harmony Project, died early Friday morning after a long illness. He was 86.
Orchestra members described Nelson to be like an oak tree, as he firmly stood before them and “conducted with such power.”
“The orchestra is just one of his many branches, and each person he has influenced is like one of his leaves. Things will be very different without him, but we will take what we learned from him and carry it on with us,” said Trevor MacHattie, a member of the orchestra since 2006. “I’ll miss his sense of humour, his optimism, but most of all I’ll miss a good friend.”
Nelson founded the orchestra in 1997 and led a group of 14 musicians through their first symphony concert in June 1998. Now, the orchestra has more than 60 members, and 12 of the original 14 musicians still perform with it today.
“He was a brilliant musician with a magical, electric personality and an incredible ear,” said Lee Anderson, who has been a violinist with the Sooke Philharmonic Orchestra since it first began. “He just radiated passion, and encouraged everyone to play and love music the way he did.”
Bob Whittet, a friend of Nelson’s and past president of the orchestra, said Nelson and his wife Jenny have created a legacy in Sooke by starting up the orchestra and devoting so much time to it over the last 20 years.
“He drew people in, and has touched everyone around him,” said Whittet. “I think people are blown away when they hear music from the orchestra, especially in a small town like Sooke. I certainly am, and I think that’s why I’ve stayed on the board for all these years.”
Another one of Nelson’s “branches,” is The Harmony Project, which is intended to help develop young musicians.
“The Harmony Project impacts lives and has helped kids find their passion and purpose,” said Brent Straughan, a friend of Nelson’s who volunteers with the Harmony Project and plays violin in the orchestra.
Music helped Nelson find his purpose, as he began learning the violin at the age of 10. Five years later, he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London where he studied privately and learned from professional musicians.
He then joined the London Symphony Orchestra as an assistant concertmaster, and later held the same position with the Royal Philharmonic. When he moved to Canada, he taught music in both Edmonton and Vancouver.
“He had a lifetime of experience before coming to Sooke, and when teaching us, he would break down each song bar by bar until it sounded right,” Straughan said.
“He was the best musician I have ever met, but he was never judgmental, and he had this marvellous ability to work with even the most inexperienced people.”
Nelson played with professional musicians in orchestras in London many times, but told the Sooke News Mirror last year, that he preferred to work with amateur musicians like he did in Sooke because of their music, enthusiasm and lack of politics.
“Amateur musicians are what keep us all going. They love playing music, that’s all there is to it,” he said.
Nelson added he enjoyed working with the Sooke Philharmonic because all of the members are very nice and comfortable people.
Sonja Dewit, who has played cello for the Sooke Philharmonic since it first started, said Nelson built a small community out of the orchestra.
“We aren’t just a collection of people who play together sometimes, we are all like a family, and it’s because of him,” Hyslop said. “He was so generous with his time, and brought everyone together. And we will give it everything we’ve got to keep the orchestra going in Norman’s memory.”
A Facebook page has been created where people can share their memories of Nelson, as well as find old photos and stories about his life.
A public celebration of Nelson’s life will be held March 10 at the Sooke Community Hall beginning at 3:30 p.m. Everyone is welcome as the Philharmonic Orchestra, chorus, along with former members and students of Nelson will be performing.
The upcoming Emily Carr String Quartet concert happening in Sooke on Feb. 28 will also dedicated to Nelson.