Best in the West

When the Western Canadian Music Awards (WCMAs) were handed out in Victoria, this year, a Prince George name was at the top of one of the categories.

Violinist Karl Stobbe - born and raised in Prince George, trained on the instrument primarily by his uncle John Suderman of the PGSO - picked up the trophy for Classical Recording of the Year. His winning album was Ysae Sonatas For Solo Violin. This was also nominated for a Juno Award earlier this year.

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These awards events list him as a Manitoba resident, since he lives in Winnipeg where he is the second chair for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's violin section and also concertmaster for the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra. But he is quick and assertive about his northern B.C. roots.

"Of course I'd love to come back," he said. "I haven't seen P.G. since the last time I performed with the PGSO (in December, 2008 when he was the VIP soloist who performed Vivaldi and Piazzolla).

"There is lots about Prince George that I miss, and a lot that I think defines who I am," he said, crediting the outdoor recreation as a child as much as the deep musical learning he obtained here with helping him fit into life in Winnipeg. "There are a lot of similarities."

The last time he was here, he was struck by the height of the mountain pine beetle's devastation to the local forest.

"It bothered me immensely. I was actually quite upset by it," he said. "I had a lot of good memories of forests I used to play in: Edgewood Terrace (in the semi-rural North Nechako neighbourhood near Foothills Boulevard and the Nechako River) was my elementary school, places I used to ride bikes, places I'd go fishing in the rivers and lakes... And that part has continued on. My son is an avid fisher now, and that all comes from P.G. And those forests just didn't exist anymore. I'm hoping to see some recovery when I do get to come back."

Prince George had another almost cosmic connection to the Western Canadian Music Awards and the Juno extravaganza this past year. Stobbe said he found it fascinating and more than a little exciting when he realized what was going on.

First, at the Juno Awards, he was in the running for Classical Album of the Year for Ysae Sonatas for Solo Violin and among the other nominees - James Ehnes, Angle Dubeau & La Piet - was a double-disc nomination for Jonathan Crow who grew up playing violin alongside Stobbe back in Prince George then went on to be an orchestral star in Canada.

It was the first time in Prince George history that a local has been up against his/her self in a Juno category, and also the only time two were also vying with each other in the same category. (Ehnes was the eventual winner.)

Then, fast-forward to this fall and the WCMAs, and it was a similar kind of oddity. Stobbe was in the mix victoriously with his album, but also among the winners in the classical categories was the album Cobalt by British Columbia composer Jocelyn Morlock.

This album needed two featured violin players to accompany Morlock and the National Arts Centre Orchestra. Guess who the producers selected? Yup. Stobbe and Crow. Together. Yes, that trophy went to Morlock, but Prince George fingers were all over the material, and that was deliberate.

"The National Arts Centre Orchestra would put on a festival every year - it was called the Scene Festival - and the point of it was to feature different provinces and what's going on in each regional musical scene," Stobbe said. "When it was B.C.'s turn a few years ago, Jocelyn was chosen as a featured composer, this was the piece, and the festival's conductor (Alain Trudel) knew I was from B.C. and he knew Jonathan was from B.C. I'm pretty sure he knew we were both from the same hometown and wanted that connection to happen. And actually, because I was living in Manitoba, and Jonathan was living in Quebec, we were each selected as representatives for those provinces, too, and it all lined up. Three years in a row, the festival featured the same two B.C. boys - P.G. boys - and it's something Jonathan and I are really proud of. Prince George has actually made quite an impact, quite a significant contribution, to Canada's classical music community, it really has."

Count among those contributions people like Stobbe's cello star brother Joel, acclaimed pianists David Louie and Stephanie Chow, celebrated bassoonist Nadina Mackie Jackson, up-and-coming conductor Kevin Zakresky, admired arts administrator (and musician) Broek Bosma, and others - classical music personalities who were born and raised and formatively trained in Prince George before moving on to professional careers in music. Reports of classical music's demise are quite inaccurate, he said.

"I'm still playing 130 concerts a year, all of it crammed between September and June, so there is a lot going on," he said. "An incredible amount of music is happening out there. I'm hugely optimistic that classical music is holding its own and then some, but consistent salary pay cheques are harder to come by. You have to hustle for your income more than in the past, but I think that's true for a lot of the music industry, not just our part of it."

He has a showcase all to himself, coming up in Winnipeg. That album of his is a collection of six individual pieces, with thematic links. He has been called to perform them all in one sitting at Winnipeg's famous Agassiz Chamber Music Festival, with a few minutes of conversation and information in between each one. It'll be like a boxer going six rounds with short breaks to catch one's breath.

"Those sonatas are a huge huge play for the violin," he said. "To get recognition for pieces that really are the pinnacle for the instrument, it really is flattering, and a lot of good things have come from this, including this opportunity at the Agassiz. That's going to be a lot of work. It's hardcore violin playing. They are dense and thick and powerful."

The festival will be held in June.

Stobbe's album Ysae Sonatas For Solo Violin is available from Amazon.ca, with links at Stobbe's own website. There, too, you can purchase Cobalt.

Other musicians from the region who were celebrated at the Western Canadian Music Awards included Fort St. John folk act Twin Peaks. The duo picked up the trophy for Roots Duo/Group Recording of the Year for their album Trouble. Also, Smithers-born Dan Mangan took home a Songwriter of the Year trophy for his Dan Mangan + Blacksmith disc Club Meds.

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