Celebrating the legacy of the Music Festival

The Aud Board has invited VMAF to hang a photo collage in the theatre’s hallway, representing festival competition over the years. Talented individuals, some internationally known, got their inspiration and experience performing in Virden Music & Arts Festival.

A vibrant arts community has been developed and nurtured within southwestern Manitoba by both Virden Music & Arts Festival and the opportunity to perform on the Aud stage.

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 Festival photos from years past, will hang in the Aud’s hallway, across from historical photo canvases of other Aud performances which were mounted in 2016 in the then 106-year-old theatre.

Committee members Jennifer Andrew, Marilyn Wakely and Judy Poole were in the Empire-Advance Monday morning, Jan. 8, searching the early years of newspaper archives and examining well-kept festival scrapbooks.

Festival competition in Virden began in 1937, with a short hiatus during the war years of the 1940s.

“The festival has been the one constant user group through the years,” explained Judy Poole.

With funding offered by the Aud Theater, the festival committee is in the process of gathering a half-dozen photos to be printed and framed for display. They were searching for just the right photos – clear and representative of the history of Virden’s festival since the first performances.

Theatre-goers may recognize family members or even find themselves in a photo as they pass by the wall of prints on canvas when the project is finished, hopefully later in 2018.

Famous talent

VMAF has drawn in a wide swath of young performers.

“We’ve discovered that through the years a lot of people that went on to be famous in their own areas first performed at this festival,” says Poole, “because it was one of the only venues where people could perform for the public.”

The committee rhymed off Westman names - performers at Virden festival who went on to become famous to one degree or another, such as the late Donald Whyte, born in Rivers, in 1942. Whyte was a violinist who went on to play with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.  Hamiota born violinist Malcolm Lowe joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra as concertmaster in 1984; Joan Dillon, also from Hamiota, rose as a violinist to assistant concertmaster with Netherlands Symphony Orchestra.


Others who crossed the stage of Virden festival include Virden resient Brett Scott who became an accomplished pianist, multi-talented in band, vocal and speech arts. He is now at the University of Cincinnati teaching the conducting of ensembles.

Kent Forman, born and raised in Rivers, was a pupil of the late Alex Whyte. He attended the Virden festival and went on to play four years with Symphony Nova Scotia and five with the Winnipeg Symphony, before returning to Brandon to take up business. 

Trevor Hayhurst, of Cromer graduated from Virden Collegiate Institute and became lead singer for the band Econoline Crush.

“They all started at our local music and arts festival.”

New scholarship

Within meticulously kept photo books we find the name of Empire-Advance Editor J.P. McLachlan. He was president of Virden Music & Arts Festival from 1952 – 1958 and once more in 1961, also putting up an award shield for a festival class.

These books of record were archived by community musician, the late Bernice McDonald, (born to the Wiggins family of Arrow River, just a few miles north of Virden).

“She needs to have a spoke in there.” Poole explained, “She was involved in the music scene here as a performer, vocal conductor and festival volunteer from the 60s through to the 90s.”

McDonald’s legacy also lives on with VMAF in financial support of the arts.

“Her family named our festival as one of the charities that people could contribute to,” said Poole. “So, we have enough money from those contributions to now offer three permanent scholarships in her name.”

Rural Manitoba has talent. Virden’s large festival is one of a few continuing to provide students of the arts with a venue to both perform and to learn from their adjudications.

In recent years festivals have fallen on hard times. Poole says "Both large and small festivals struggle to find volunteers and financial support." 

Several festivals including neighbouring Birdtail River (in Miniota this year) have continued. After months of work learning their craft, truly keen performers have several festivals to compete at, putting all preparation to good use and gaining all the more experience in public performance.

"I think festivals are important for many reasons. They provide opportunities for young people to perform and to improve their skills while developing confidence and poise in front of an audience."

It will take time for professional photographers to restore and prepare the historic festival photos for display in the hall of the Aud Theatre, where some of the VMAF classes are held yearly.

© Virden Empire-Advance