Interview with cultural philanthropists Walter and Irene DeBoni

June 03, 2015

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Walter and Irene DeBoni have been enthusiastic supporters of the National Music Centre (NMC) for over a decade. Introduced to NMC’s “living” collection during a First Thursday Tour, the couple has been enamored ever since. Both Walter and Irene are ardent lovers of music in all of its various forms, and have donated $125,000 to the NMC building project since it broke ground in 2013.

In our first donor profile, the DeBonis talk about the importance of preserving Calgary’s music history, the upcoming programming for Historic Calgary Week’s 25th anniversary, and why they think NMC will help build a stronger arts community when it opens in 2016.

Terry Cho: Where are you from?

Irene DeBoni: I’m from Dawson Creek. We met in Vancouver at UBC, and came to Calgary right after graduation. Like most people here, a lot of us are from somewhere else.

Walter DeBoni: We’ve been here since 1969. I was born in Italy and came to Canada in 1951 as a young child. I grew up in the Arrow Lakes region of the West Kootenays.

TC: Have you always been music lovers?

ID: Yes, mostly as spectators. We’re not very musical ourselves.

WD: Classical music has always been important to us. We’ve been a part of the CPO (Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra) family since about 1982/83.

ID: We started off by going to the POP series, taking our two boys along. We eventually started going to other series, including most of the classics. Our younger son has been very involved with music since Grade 7. He was in a concert and jazz band through school and after university he continued to play in jazz bands in Calgary for several years.

TC: Having lived in Calgary for such a long time, what are you thoughts on how music has progressed in the city?

ID: There is so much available now. You can’t go to everything, which is fabulous that there is so much choice. MRU (Mount Royal University) has a great program, NMC of course offers program, and then there’s Folk Fest (Calgary Folk Music Festival) in the summer. There is just so much going on all the time—concerts everywhere.

WD: There’s a lot of formal stuff, which is very good, but it’s interesting to see how most musicians belong to many different informal groups. For example, half the CPO musicians participate in quartets and quintets and different groups, either here or in other cities. It’s interesting to watch how they morph into different combinations, different kinds of music. There’s probably even more music that’s flying under the radar, and it’s just great to see that.

TC: I noticed that too. Even the regulars that play in Stage One (NMC’s all-ages performance venue) have all collaborated, at some point in time, with each other. Even though they might perform in different genres or be at different points in their lives, it’s interesting to see how that common thread brings them together when normally they wouldn’t.

WD: And that’s one thing I know and like about the National Music Centre. You’ll provide another venue for people to do exactly that; to provide the informal, as well the formal music. That’s just great, because that’s how stuff develops. People get together and new ideas emerge as opposed to just following the old masters—which is fantastic—but that’s not the only thing.

TC: So, how did you guys get involved with NMC?

ID: A number of years ago, we attended a First Thursday at the National Music Centre. It was a lot of fun and we thought the next logical step was involving NMC with Historic Calgary Week. Bob Pearson (former NMC Interpreter) was always a person involved with that. The partnership goes back about 10 years now.

TC: Tell me more about Historic Calgary Week and Chinook Country Historical Society.

WD: Chinook Country is the organization that sponsors Historic Calgary Week, among other programs they run throughout the year. The whole idea is to bring history to life, if you will. Practically everything is free, and we’re always looking for members.

ID: This is the 25th anniversary for Historic Calgary Week, so we thought we wanted to do a few things that are special. Thursday, July 23 we’re presenting a film that was made a number of years ago, and produced by PBS. It’s called Calgary Remembered. It’s all about how Calgary came together and developed such a wonder spirit of volunteerism. It explores major milestones in Calgary’s history: the trainloads of Stampeders fans who came to the 1948 Grey Cup in Toronto, the 1988 Olympics, the Calgary Stampede. After the screening, we’re holding a panel discussion, featuring NMC President and CEO Andrew Mosker, three-time Olympian Diane Jones Konihowski and Councillor Gian-Carlo Carra. The panel will discuss how we can maintain that volunteer spirit.

Another event we’re doing in partnership with NMC is Play It Again on July 31. Bob Pearson puts on fabulous presentations about Calgary’s musical past, and this one will highlight Calgary’s lesser-known, but equally important musical haunts and hangouts.

TC: Being involved with Historic Calgary Week, why do you think it’s important to preserve our musical history?

ID: It’s important to find out where you come from in order to know where you’re going. And it’s fascinating. If you come to Bob’s presentations you just think: “Wow! This is pretty cool!” He always does such a great job.

TC: Is there one aspect of Calgary’s musical history that you believe should be preserved?

WD: I don’t think there’s just one thing. I think the fact that there’s been diverse music in Calgary right back to the time of the North-West Mounted Police is important to preserve and celebrate.

We’ve always been more than just a cowboy society. Even though the cowboy aspect may have been more dominant back then, there were still a lot of folks around that were interested in the arts and other things.

If somebody doesn’t keep that history it’ll just fade away. Our history shows us how multi-faceted our society has been for decades as opposed to just the last 10 years when we experienced intense growth.

TC: What would you say are your most memorable musical experiences?

ID: I think for us it’s got to be the Remembrance Day program at the CPO.

WD: Yes. Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation was a new commission for the CPO about two years ago. We partially fund a new works program that underwrote this commission. The program was a commemoration of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan. It was created by Canadian composer Jeffery Ryan in collaboration with poet Suzanne Steele. The commission featured the CPO and Chorus, the Cantaré Children’s Choir and four Canadian soloists. The composition took elements of Suzanne’s poetry and intertwined it with the melody.

TC: What was so powerful about it?

ID: It was immediate. This performance took place while our troops were still in active combat. We had mothers that came to it that had lost sons in Afghanistan, and they were just so totally moved. It was wonderful.

WD: It was a very moving experience. The poetry didn’t pull punches about the war. It touched on the drug addiction problems and everything else. It’s all very in your face—a real look at war as opposed to just the glorification of war and all this king and country stuff. At the same time, it left no doubt as to the dedication of our military to its mission.

The other moving performance was the one I saw in Vienna. It was the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s death and they had a concert in Vienna commemorating the day. I must say that the Vienna Philharmonic was inspired that evening. It was an amazing concert.

TC: What excites you about the National Music Centre project?

WD: I see the National Music Centre as a place that will encourage and foster arts groups to work together, provide not just a venue, but be a vehicle for people to come together and encourage each other and groups to work together. Out of this cooperation, you’re going to get a stronger arts community all around. It’s not a competition. I think most patrons appreciate the opportunity of seeing the whole art form uplifted and improved. That’s why I’m happy to support it.

ID: That certainly is one aspect that builds the excitement and brings more people together. But it started with the collection, and that’s still an exciting part of it. I’m always telling people ‘you gotta see all the stuff they’ve got. It’s so cool!’ We brought our whole family here at Christmas time and they were thrilled. Looking back at the pictures in our family album of our daughter-in-law and our granddaughter playing the Pleyel Duoclave piano—that’s so fun. They just loved it!

It’s not just one thing we like about this place. It’s everything. We like the fact that you put on so many programs. We love the fact that you’re involved with kids.

TC: Is there one thing in particular that you’re both excited to see inside the new building?

WD: Apart from seeing the building itself, which will be spectacular, I think the programming is something I’m really looking forward to—the performances and variety of music, having a central facility where you can gather. This will be a hub.

ID: I’m still trying to conceptualize all of the things that will happen in there. I’m just looking forward to all of it.

 

Historic Calgary Week runs from July 23 – August 3 and features over 60 events.

Thursday, July 23 – Calgary Remembered from 6:30-9pm at the John Dutton Theatre, 2nd Floor, Central Library 616 Macleod Trail SE

Friday, July 31 – Play It Again: More of Calgary’s Musical Places from 1:30-2:30 pm at the National Music Centre, 134 11 Ave SE

For more information check out http://www.chinookcountry.org/ or stay tuned to our events listings at https://www.nmc.ca/whats-on/

 

Interview conducted by Terry Cho.

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