Leisure, People, Our Creativity
From cornfields to international music centre
Curated by Vanessa Cunningham
Storyteller: Donna Bennett
November 5, 2021
Barbra Lica, JUNO-nominated singer and songwriter, and Tom Fleming, guitarist, performing Take Care Of You, outside of The Barn at Westben. Filmed by Steve Dagg, 2020
A few kilometers outside of Campbellford, Ontario, right where County Road 30 bends as it starts to head north is Westben Centre for Connection and Creativity through music. Nestled in the hills of Northumberland County, Westben sits on 50 acres of farmland surrounded by mature oak and maple trees. It’s a community hub, experience incubator, and cultural keystone of the area. Simply put, it’s a magical place.
“When you’re here, sitting on the meadow, you can see right into the stage of The Barn, and the doors all open up so the music spills out into the meadow and the meadow comes into The Barn,” describes Donna Bennett, Co-Founder of Westben.
Donna and her husband, Brian Finley, co-founded Westben as a live music venue in 1999 with the goal of bringing people together through music. Since its opening, Westben has welcomed musicians of diverse genres, such as classical, jazz, folk, marimba, and even pop. This commitment to connecting through music is still alive and strong, but in 2017, Westben underwent one of its biggest changes and re-imagined itself as Westben Centre for Connection and Creativity. Transforming from a live music venue into an arts centre allowed Donna and Brian to attend to other parts of their vision: to create a year-round establishment that moves beyond presentational music to an immersive experience where “nature is a part of the music, and the audience is a part of the performance,” explains Donna.
Indeed, it has done just that. Westben is a place where music helps create fluid boundaries between people and nature. It’s where people come together and experience each moment with all of their senses. “We’ve had people performing and just stop and say I’ve never performed with butterflies flying by,” says Donna. “And sometimes when we do night concerts you’ll be sitting there and you’ll hear coyotes or you’ll see bats flying in the ceiling.”
So how did Westben become the magical destination it is today? Well, it’s been an “unexpected journey”, as Donna puts it; one that started with a cornfield on a family farm and an intention to pursue a professional music career abroad…
Donna, a soprano opera singer, and Brian, a classical pianist, were professional musicians who performed with orchestras across Canada, toured around Europe, and taught at the University of Toronto and Queens University. Before starting Westben, they worked overseas in England for three years, until Donna was pregnant with their first child, Ben. It was at that point that they decided to move home – “we just got this instinct to come home,” says Donna. Although they returned home to Campbellford, the move was supposed to be temporary, six months only, after which Donna and Brian intended to go back to England.
But then they started to become involved in the local community. Donna and Brian got together with some of their friends and decided they would start performing musicals. Their first show, Jesus Christ Superstar included an impressive cast and crew of 100 community members inside the local church. They sold 2,000 tickets – not bad for a rural town of 3,400. “We knew, wow, they want something here!” she says.
The show clearly sparked a musical desire in the community. It was mostly an amateur production, but the performance was joyous and life changing. “We had the grocer in it, and the funeral person in it, and the mayor was in it, and you could see that they had wanted to do that as kids, and now we were giving them that opportunity and they were helping to make it happen as well – it was very fulfilling,” describes Donna.
To keep this energy going, the group of friends decided to put on another musical the following year. This time they performed the Sound of Music, and once again saw amazing community support, selling 2,000 tickets. That’s when ideas of a more permanent establishment began.
The Barn is an iconic part of Westben. Designed and built in 2000 by Didier Schvartz, it’s a 5,400 sq. ft original Timber Frame, made from coastal hemlock and locally milled pine trees. It seats 400 people inside, and up to 500 outside, creating an intimate setting with doors that slide open to the grassy meadow and a stage that allows performers to connect with the audience. Intimacy also comes by way of the many trusses in the pitched roof that reflect the sound and enhance acoustics. It’s truly a remarkable work of art and craftsmanship.
That same year, in 2000, not long after its construction, is when the first concert took place inside The Barn. “I’ll never forget when Brian walked in to introduce the very first concert, everybody stood up and started cheering and clapping because everybody felt like they had helped build this barn,” Donna remembers.
Since that first concert, The Barn has held over 500 artists, thousands of audience members, and the musical spirit of the Campbellford and Trent Hills community. “I love walking around the outside when it’s dusk, and it’s full inside of people and there’s a musician going around, but it seems like the whole barn is an instrument when you’re on the outside,” says Donna.
Westben would not be possible without the dedication of the community and the team of 150 volunteers, some of whom have been volunteering for 20 years. Volunteers fulfill many roles, such as ticket taking, ushering, cleaning, maintenance, and fundraising. “When new people move to town people will say, well come and volunteer at Westben because you’ll meet other people”. It’s the type of thing where friendships that feel like family are formed.
Friendships are formed in other unique ways as well. Each year, community members open their homes so that each artist has a place to stay during their time at Westben. It’s so successful that when artists return to Westben, they specifically request the same billet! It’s a creative yet simple approach that is one of numerous ways that people connect through music.
In 2017, Westben made one of its biggest decisions to transform itself into a year round centre that not only features presentational music but immerses people in artistic events and with their surroundings. Becoming a centre also meant expanding its international community; unexpectedly, this has taken off quickly thanks to a new Performer-Composer Residency program. Initiated and led by Donna and Brian’s son, Ben Finley, the program attracted 82 applications from around the world in its first year.
Another new program that started is the Dare to Pair Series, where a local chef and sommelier lead a food and wine tasting alongside a local storyteller that people can listen to. “It would all have the theme of the music of the day and you hear the musicians warming up in The Barn and we do nature walks with different experiences, so it’s more than just a concert at Westben,” says Donna.
Westben has also started experimenting with innovative ways to bring people and nature together through music. For example, in 2018 Westben held a community event called Find the Birds, Find the Pianist. It started with placing a piano in a local park and leading people on a bird walk through the park as they simultaneously listened and searched for both birds and the piano. Upon finding the piano, the pianist put on an improvised concert to mimic the birds. Bringing nature into music gives people an opportunity to learn and develop empathy for nature. Not only that, but Donna explains how “having music in nature takes down a lot of pretentions tied to formal concerts - having to sit still, dress up, pay for parking, all that stuff; instead, you can just wear shorts and be relaxed!”
In 2020, Westben experienced dramatic changes because of the pandemic. A total of 82 events were planned for the season, but it didn’t take long for all performances scheduled that year to be cancelled as the virus spread. “Of course it was devastating, but a lot of good things happened too,” says Donna. Westben staff came up with the idea to create a new Westben YouTube Channel and Digital Venue, which allowed them to present digital concerts, stay connected, and reach new audiences. Having a digital presence to get Westben out in the world had always been Donna and Brian’s goal, but it was the pandemic that pushed them to get there. And it worked! The international audience increased from 1% prior to the pandemic to 30% after.
With the COVID-19 virus still present, Westben continues to use its creative energy to find new ways to bring people together. This summer and fall, Westben hopes to welcome people to Willow Hill Amphitheatre, a natural grassy amphitheater that was discovered close to The Barn that will serve as a new outdoor venue.
Now into its 21st year, Westben has shown that it will always strive to bring people together and dream of meaningful ways to do so. It truly is a rural Ontario treasure that will awaken your senses. If you haven’t visited, either the physical or digital space, then be sure to stop by and experience the magic yourself.
Brian Finley performing his piece, Mount Carmel, from his collection CD of Preludes to Canada. Filmed by Steve Dagg, 2019