Sitting at a table in a downtown cafe, Paula DeWit wipes away a tear as she talks about the impact music has had on her life and how she’s seriously worried about the future of classical music appreciation in Chilliwack.
“We’ve only sold 14 tickets so far to the Notable Feast,” says DeWit, conductor of the Chilliwack Symphony Orchestra (CSO). The Feast, which is on April 21, is the CSO’s annual fundraising event, and without its success the orchestra’s future is foggy.
“The last couple of years we’ve had members from the Chilliwack Symphony and members from Belle Voci performing at it, but it’s not drawing in people,” DeWit said. “Now we’re trying something different because we want people to come to the Feast.”
Headlined by Roy & Rosemary, a well-known piano and violin fusion duo, DeWit says the evening is going to be really exciting. “We’re doing a cocktail hour from 6 to 7 p.m., and the guys (previously known as) Midnight Meow are coming in to do an hour of music.
“The music that evening is going to be mind boggling. It’s all top drawer professional music from our Lower Mainland,” added DeWit. “So I don’t understand why everyone attends (other galas) when this one is so good? I’m bringing in world-class musicians!”
A former member of the Canadian Armed Forces, DeWit credits music with saving her life, which is why she devotes herself to Chilliwack’s music scene. “I knew very young I was going to be a musician. My dad was a musician, and my brother and I used to host little concerts in our backyard while growing up.”
But DeWit suffered a personal trauma at the hands of another person during her basic training that tarnished her time in the forces and lead to a vicious cycle of depression and shame. By the time she left the forces, she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and agoraphobia.
“I used to pray to God to just take my arm instead and let me be a normal person,” exclaimed DeWit. “I used to do that! Pray to have that disability instead so He could make me normal again so I didn’t have all those stupid panic attacks and anxiety and jump whenever a pencil would drop on the floor.”
However, despite her mental health challenges, DeWit says “the arts keep me alive, it gets me out of my bed in the mornings.” Which is why she and her late husband, John Van Liempt, developed the Chilliwack Symphony Orchestra in 1999.
“The Symphony gave me strength,” explained DeWit. “We put on two concerts a year—it was the community’s orchestra. And it gave me purpose again, like real purpose.”
From there, DeWit put her whole self into developing and expanding Chilliwack’s access to live, professional quality, musical entertainment. In addition to conducting the CSO, DeWit also started Belle Voci, the CSO Starlets, the Chilliwack Opera Troupe, and the Children and Youth Choirs.
“I started the (youth choirs) because I needed to keep the music alive in the kids. Because without them, then what? If music dies with them, it’s done,” DeWit said.
“I’ve poured my whole life into the symphony and it’s on the verge (of collapsing),” she added with frustration. “Now I’m sharing my story because it might get people wanting to support the arts because there’s healing power in it: when I do music I feel alive.
“I’m not in this for the money, I’m in this to keep alive—I can’t imagine not having music. I’d die. And how many other Paula DeWits are out there who need music to stay alive?”
But it’s not just any music DeWit says she’s struggling to keep alive, it’s the local talent she’s most concerned with. Of course there will always be performances at the larger venues, DeWit adds, but they won’t be locals, which means none of the money we pay them ends up being reinvested in our community.
“If we’re not going to support the local artists, they’re all going to (move on), which is what’s happening right now,” DeWit said. “Places like the Cultural Centre are taking up a lot of the arts donations, which doesn’t doesn’t leave much for the little guy, making fundraising events like the Notable Feast so very important.”
And while there may be change on the horizon for the CSO with the securing of a title sponsor for the Feast, DeWit says it’s not enough.
“It’s the first time we’ve ever had a title sponsor. I’m not sure what’s changed, maybe somebody’s watching what I’m doing, it’s a nice change. But even getting that only covers Roy & Rosemary and shipping the piano.
“Because Roy represents Fazioli … I’m bringing in a $130,000 six-foot white piano, which can cost a lot of money because it’s being shipped from Vancouver. It’s so beautiful.
“For me, it would be worth it to go to the Feast just for that, to see that piano,” said DeWit with a smile.
Although DeWit agrees music’s in her blood, she doesn’t expect everyone to live and breathe it like she does. However, she says music’s a universal healer, and the best way to keep it local is for the community to create a bond with it.
“You have to get the community to fall in love with the conductor,” explained DeWit. “It creates a bond and loyalty. This isn’t about me: I don’t have an ego, I don’t. I serve the music.”
But for those loyal to the music and its survival, DeWit says the upcoming Notable Feast is “going to be so good on so many levels. The meal is amazing and you get a free glass of champagne as you come in. What’s not to love?”
Tickets start at $115, and can be bought online through the Chilliwack Symphony Orchestra & Chorus website, or at Kings and House of James in Abbotsford.