Maestro please!

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John Kim Bell has lived many lives. The Kahanawake native is known for creating the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation in 1985, which started up the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards in the 1993.

Bell is also a composer, who has scored various television productions for CTV, including Divided Loyalties, and even PBS’s The Trial of Standing Bear. In 1988, he wrote the music for Canada’s largest ever Aboriginal dance production, In the Land of the Spirits.

Currently, he works for Brookfield Renewable Power, a Quebec-based group that has been vying to work with the Crees to develop their newly formed energy company.

What many of the Nation’s readers might not know is that Bell was Canada’s first Aboriginal symphony conductor.

Though his more recent career pursuits have led him away from the symphony podium, Harbourfront Centre’s Planet IndigenUs cultural festival managed to lure him back for a one-night event to open the 10-day fest in Toronto August 14.

“I have not done it in 12 years so it was extremely challenging for me. I spent six months memorizing 800 pages of music and I exercised like a fiend for about three months. I lost 10 pounds so that I could stand for an hour and a half in the sweltering heat,” Bell said.

Bell conducted the 72-piece Planet IndigenUs Festival Orchestra, which featured two Aboriginal sopranos, Melody Mercredi of Vancouver and Mavis Callihoo of Edmonton.

Over 2000 people crowded Harbourfront’s Sirius Stage to take in Bell conducting Romeo and Juliet Suites 1 & 2 by Prokofiev, the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture by Tchaikovsky, Leonard Bernstein’s Candide Overture and Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus overture. Many of those who attended were Aboriginals from across Canada as well as other Indigenous peoples from around the world there to participate in the festival.

“I was sweating up a storm, because it’s very physical. When people see the broadcast they will realize how physical it is when you are conducting serious music, especially all of that heavy Russian stuff. I like those Russian guys,” said Bell.

The broadcast he is speaking of is the CBC recording of the show, which will be aired on APTN as a special event in December.

Pulling off the symphony was not without its difficulties. Though Bell has conducted prestigious symphonies in the U.S., Canada and the U.K., what he was unaccustomed to was the severely shortened rehearsal time. Bell said that usually a conductor has at least five rehearsals prior to show time, but due to the poor economy Harbourfront could only afford two.

Being back in the conductor’s loop however has its privileges. Now that he’s back in fighting form, Bell said he might be willing to pick up the baton again in the future, despite his busy schedule. Being the first of his kind in his field, Bell cannot find any reason as to why not to continue conducting.

“I am certainly an anomaly in our community. I don’t think that a lot of people in our community go to symphony orchestra concerts so it is a bit foreign. So, it’s breaking new ground but that is what we should be doing. It is all a positive thing and it just shows that we have no limitations. It is an example that we can do anything that we want to do and that we should impose no limitations on ourselves,” said Bell.

Though the symphonic world is based in the traditions and trappings of classical music, Bell has also successfully incorporated traditional Aboriginal music into symphonic scores. His ballet, In the Land of the Spirits, brought Aboriginal themes and sounds to the big stage of the National Arts Centre back in 1988.

As for what his future might hold, Bell said that it all depends on where he is invited to perform.

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