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Award-winning composer instrumental in building ensemble’s rich musical legacy 

Arts and EntertainmentAward-winning composer instrumental in building ensemble's rich musical legacy 

Ronald Beckett, the Brantford-based composer and conductor, founded Arcady Ensemble in 1998 and since then, has led it as its Artistic Director; overseeing many performances and special musical projects as well as helping nurture both local and international musical talent.

Beckett, who originally hails from Simcoe, Ontario, decided to set down his musical roots in Brantford after coming to the area as an assistant tennis pro, the last non-musical job he would ever have.

“It introduced me to the city and I then got a job at one of the local churches…And that provided a nice venue for rehearsals. But before that, Arcady existed in the same state and still had the same charitable license numbers we had when we were registered as the Norfolk Singers, which was based in Simcoe,” Beckett continued. “Then the name was changed to Arcady in 1998 because we needed something that was less geographically centered on Norfolk County [and] less emphasis on just the vocal aspect [as we] had a substantial orchestra. Also, at that point, we were performing everywhere…in Cambridge in Hamilton, Burlington, the Niagara area, Kitchener-Waterloo, and Guelph, as well as, Toronto.”

Ronald Beckett founded Arcady in Brantford, Ontario in 1998 and has since developed it into a respected ensemble boasting a roster of 150 musicians composed of professional instrumentalists, soloist/mentor singers, university singers, accomplished community singers, and a youth chorus. Photo courtesy Arcady.

However, the foundation for Beckett’s musical career had already been established during his childhood, and under the watchful eye of his piano teacher.

“I was fortunate enough to have a piano teacher who encouraged composition. He gave me books on composers (which were designed for kids) each week I read them and remember thinking, “This is what I would love to do,’” Beckett explained. “And so, there were times when the entire lesson was devoted to analyzing the piece that I had written [which were] pieces for piano at that point. It was an early exposure to the creative process.”

Beckett would then get deeper into music composition; writing longer, more complex pieces during his teenage years. With a strong portfolio in hand, Beckett set out to develop his passion at McMaster University.

“When I went to university there was no specific course designed for [composition], but a colleague of mine told me [they had let] him study composition. And I thought that I could do that too. I went to the administration and they converted one of my electives to composition. I ended up studying with world-famous composer William Wallace,” said Beckett. “I then went on to graduate studies at the University of Western [and] after graduating with a master’s in composition I was sort of left with that void of being an independent musician.”

Pictured here is Arcady’s chorus, youth chorus, and string orchestra performing at the 25th Anniversary Concert. Photo courtesy Arcady.

Beckett would do other jobs until he focused on a career in music and founding Arcady which not only showcased Beckett’s original compositions but also would go on to feature many emerging young artists.

“In 2004, we started ‘an emerging artists program’, whereby students who are recent graduates could apply to us. We originally started with a couple of students [and] what I would do was write them pieces specific to their voices. They were singers at that point, then they would be featured in a recital…and then we would incorporate them into the regular program,” he explained. “As time went on, the emerging artists program expanded to the point where we included instrumentalists, actors, poets, dancers, conductors, and composers. And it rose from two a year to as many as 12 to 14 a year. And it became international as we were getting applicants from all over the world who would come in, do one performance with us, and then leave. This was good for us and the [artists] as it gave them experience [and] attracted more attention worldwide to other directors’ organizations.”

Another photo of Arcady’s 25th Anniversary Concert. Photo courtesy Arcady.

As some talent left to pursue other musical endeavors, Beckett notes that many more stayed and enriched the ensemble by developing the next generation of talent.  

“A lot of the people stayed with us and they became the core of mentors and Arcady sort of transformed into a mentoring organization whereby there were various levels of experience and expertise. The former emerging artists then became the professional core of an ensemble [and] passing on [their knowledge],” Beckett said. “After 20 years, [it has been] quite a transformation; some of those people [that started with us] were in their early 20s…and [now] they’re vastly experienced professionals in their field, and they’re involved in many other ensembles as well.”

Beckett and his ensemble are pictured practicing (in March 1990) for their first Handel’s Messiah performance. Photo courtesy Arcady.

Along with providing direction to Arcady, Beckett has continued to work on his compositions, including one of his most acclaimed, entitled ‘Ruth.’

“The history of Ruth is interesting because it’s strictly a Brantford-originating work [as] we were doing some concerts at churches [with an] organist in town by the name of Roger Bailey. And [he] sent me a libretto for Ruth,” Beckett said. “I put it aside, but then remembered it when I was planning for a coming season…I didn’t have much background [in] opera at the time [and thought of creating it] into a modern music drama that I think people could relate to. It’s a story of people just caring for one another,” said Beckett.

The opera would become one of Beckett’s most performed pieces as well, and it would morph into a trilogy which included ‘John,’ and ‘I Am…’

“Most of these performances [of Ruth] have been by Arcady, but it’s also been performed in Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee twice…I didn’t get a chance to see it or hear it, but it was quite successful,” Beckett said, “It’s been performed on classical radio and throughout the world, mostly in the Middle East, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.”

Beckett has also been recognized for his artistic contributions as a composer, winning the Walter MacNutt Prize, which is a national award jointly sponsored by the Canadian League of Composers and the Canadian Music Centre.

Beckett has developed Arcady as an ensemble that invites and nurtures both local and international talent. Since creating the emerging artists program in 2004, Beckett and various other Arcady veteran musicians have mentored young talent including singers, instrumentalists, composers, conductors, poets, and dancers. Many of them have been featured in various Arcady performances and recitals. Photo courtesy Arcady.

As part of the honor, Beckett was commissioned to compose a piece.

“[They] wanted us to perform it at St. Thomas’s [Anglican Church] in Toronto as Mr. MacNutt was music director for many years there [but] they requested that we also do it here in Brantford which the performance is scheduled for this summer and will be featuring several emerging artists,” Beckett continued. “It will also [be at the time] of the closing of the Central Presbyterian Church where I’ve been music director here in Brantford for many years, so it will be sort of a legacy to the church as well. It has been sort of our rehearsal home for many years and one of the essential points of the musical community and that will be a nice send-off for them,” stated Beckett.

However, Beckett has been hard at work on various projects for the year, including one involving Ekaterina Shelehova, an emerging opera singer.

“She has gone viral with her original compositions and some of her videos. She has won a couple of competitions in Europe where she is currently based. I’m writing a piece for her that will be presented in Whistling Gardens this August,” said Beckett. “And then we have our Canadian music concert in September; then we’re getting into the Christmas events including [our] annual Christmas with Arcady in November and [doing] a couple of performances of Handel’s Messiah, which is something that we’ve been doing since 1990.”

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