Looking Back at A Surreal Weekend

By Keith Medley

The following is an overview of SweetWater Surreal Live (September 17-20, 2020). Keith co-founded SweetWater in 2003 with his wife Jean and founding Artistic Director Mark Fewer. His family continues to be significant supporters of SweetWater to this day. In 2020, the Medley Family were Artistic Director Partner supporting our current Artistic Director Edwin Huizinga. 

I have just been to one of the most wonderful SweetWater Weekends ever, accompanied by Liz Dewar, as we did our best to represent the family in very trying times — and particularly trying for those family members who have suddenly been thrust into the front lines of pandemic response in the schools.


Above is the storied Telfer house which, as a teenage piano student I knew as the home of Norah de Pencier, the grand old lady whose Steinway I went often to practice on with, incidentally, the only big Emily Carr painting that the McMichael Canadian Art Collection presently owns then just propped on the sofa behind the piano; and a couple of dozen Tom Thomson sketches tucked rather nonchalantly in brown paper in one of the side cupboards. This home and Norah de Pencier opened my young rustic mind to the glories of art, literature and music; and so it was with a racing heart I listened to Edwin Huizinga, Mark Destrubé, Keith Hamm and Julie Hereish play the particularly exquisite Haydn quartet you will find itemized on the SweetWater web page. How thrilled Norah de Pencier would be to hear this belated thank you for what she stood for. 


The next major concert was at the increasingly popular Coffin Ridge Winery and in part constituted Mozart’s searching and dark tribute in music to his idol Joseph Haydn. The performance, with the sun setting behind the performers, was truly awesome.


Next up in the series of quartets that acted as centre pieces to the central evening concerts — referred to in the program as Garden Concerts — was another caprice of a composition by Beethoven, played with consummate artistry, by the performers. And the back lawn of Ken and Maureen Sutherland’s home was the perfect setting for music that echoed the bowing and curtsying of a bygone century. And was a total enchantment.


Finally, today featured a quartet by Debussy that came upon the audience like a freight train hurtling through a flower garden and “brought the house the down” as a result.


One of the magical “asides” of today’s concert was the arrival a a flotilla of kayaks and canoes that floated an entirely different kind of audience into play and thoroughly charmed everyone present. An honour guard of local ducks glided in stately procession on the far side of the Sydenham River, and brought the tears to my eyes because it seemed as though Mother Nature was giving the scene her imprimatur by means of a little pomp and ceremony.


There were eleven musical presentations in all over the weekend — so many in fact that the audience was truly challenged to take everything in. And of course, although I only mentioned the string quartets above, in fact there was the usual smorgasbord of other interesting and always challenging composers represented by their intriguing and often very demanding works — performed brilliantly and always with passion by the glittering artistry of the performers.


Below is a snapshot of one of the so called pop up concerts that sprang up throughout the City of Owen Sound and Municipality of Meaford. And below the magnificent backdrop of the first such concert that kicked off the weekend in Meaford itself.


I am grateful that so many people banished their understandable anxiety in a difficult time to come to the concerts and I think those brave enough to do so were rewarded handsomely.


When my wife died, I vowed that I would not give death the pleasure of feeling that I had been defeated. And I truly believe that was essentially the message of people who formed this year’s SweetWater audience; that, to paraphrase the words of Edna St. Vincent Millay: “we know [about the pandemic threat]. But .... [we] do not approve.” And .... [we are] not resigned.”


Or, as one of the musicians said to me in a text message earlier this month:


“Music needs to be live and I think SweetWater will have an unforgettable season.”


He was right.


My personal thanks to all involved.