Maestro Timothy Vernon becomes Honorary Doctor of Music

When this year’s group of graduating Fine Arts students cross the stage of UVic’s Farquhar Auditorium on June 13, they’ll find themselves in the presence of a true master — or maestro — as Timothy Vernon will also be receiving an Honorary Doctor of Music (DMus) on the same day.

Maestro Timothy Vernon

The founding artistic director of Pacific Opera Victoria, Maestro Vernon has earned the admiration of audiences by virtue of his artistic vision and fashioned POV into one of the city’s true cultural treasures. Renowned for the quality of its often challenging productions and for bold programming that can range from Handel to contemporary works, Pacific Opera Victoria has proven itself as arguably the most successful, innovative and progressive arts organization in the country — primarily thanks to Timothy Vernon.

“Timothy is an active community leader, volunteer, and an inspiration to aspiring students and professional musicians,” says Dr. Susan Lewis, Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts. “He has conducted for opera companies and orchestras across Canada and is deeply committed to the careers of emerging Canadian artists.

Vernon’s leadership and dedication to the Victoria arts community — and beyond — is well known. As the founding Artistic Director of Pacific Opera Victoria, he has led most of POV’s more than 100 productions since the company’s inception in 1979, including at least three world premieres and numerous Canadian premieres. He has conducted for opera companies and orchestras across Canada, served as Conductor Laureate for Orchestra London (Ontario) and has been a leader in education with his tenure at McGill University and his role as artistic director of the Courtenay Youth Music Centre.

Vernon receiving his Honorary Doctor on June 13. (Photo: Darren Stone, Times Colonist)

Inspiring graduates

In his address to graduating students on June 13, Vernon admitted that he was worried about the future of opera and how its “quiet voice” is in danger of being drowned out — particularly with the disappearance of music programs in the public school system.

“How do we find the faith in this elusive thing that is art, in the face of an apparently indifferent and hostile world?” he asked. Citing a POV rehearsal for La Traviata on September 11, 2001 — the day of the 9/11 attacks in the USA — Vernon spoke of the inspirational realization that came from that terrible day.

“We asked ourselves, what were we doing here making opera in the face of these horrific events? But from that low point came a discovery: that real artists fight. The real way of dealing with the demons within is to invoke the angels of our better natures — and who better than our great creators in all of our arts and traditions and histories? Even reading a page from one of Mozart’s masterpieces offers a glimpse of perfection . . . every performer understands that. Can the world ever have enough of beauty, truth, depth and grandeur? Never, we decided, should we apologize for pursuing a life in the arts; it needs no defense. It is essential for the spiritual heath of society, as in the individual . . . fashion may change, but the truth of the achievement of great art remains relevant.”

School of Music voice professor Benjamin Butterfield has a long history performing with Vernon and POV, and was quick to laud the maestro. “No one deserves greater recognition for their achievements,” he says. “Timothy is a role model to so many, crossing all generations. His unflagging enthusiasm for everything and anything, his integrity towards all he involves himself in and his inexhaustible desire to learn makes him a crucial member of this community. He is eternally young at heart — and yet, at the same time, he can engage about anything with anyone by drawing on his wealth of experience, knowledge and diverse personal interests. It is not only his enthusiasm about life but his understanding of what is important that keeps him firmly embedded in the conscience of this community.”

Timothy Vernon with Benjamin Butterfield at the special reception following Convocation (photo: Kristy Farkas)

In recognition of his work in expanding professional opera in Canada and his commitment to young musicians, Vernon was presented with the Order of Canada in 2008, and is also the recipient of The Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, among numerous other honours.

A life lived in music

Raised in Victoria, Vernon studied conducting as a teenager at the Victoria School (now Conservatory) of Music and, at just 14, held appointments as organist and choirmaster in local churches. He went on to study in Europe at the Vienna Academy of Music and Salzburg’s Mozarteum, as well as in Nice, Sienna and the Netherlands, before returning to Canada in 1975 to become conductor and music director of the Regina Symphony Orchestra. In addition to beginning his work as POV’s artistic director in 1980, he began teaching at McGill University’s Faculty of Music in 1986, where he also served as conductor of the McGill Symphony Orchestra and associate director of Opera McGill.

Butterfield fondly recalls participating in Mahler’s 2nd Symphony under Vernon’s leadership while both were at McGill. “That concert remains for many one of the greatest experiences of their lives; Timothy’s knowledge and love of the piece was beyond comprehension — he taught everyone, through that one event, how to love what they do. The fiery ease with which Timothy brought the orchestra and choir to life is still talked about in musical circles. Timothy stood tall that day — as tall as any true leader.”

School of Music chair Christopher Butterfield with Fine Arts Dean Susan Lewis and Timothy Vernon (photo: Kristy Farkas)

Most recently, Vernon was appointed artistic director of Opera Lyra Ottawa in 2015, but it is his continuing work with Pacific Opera Victoria for which he is best loved locally. And given the long history the School of Music’s has with POV — where numerous students, graduates and faculty in the voice program continue to perform — Maestro Vernon is an ideal choice to receive this latest award.

“Timothy has always thrived on sharing his talents, knowledge and wisdom with students,” concludes Butterfield. “He is witty, clever, well-read, well-spoken and a man of great integrity, and has much to offer through his decades of experience in music and in the world. UVic has done a good thing in acknowledging Maestro Vernon with this Honorary Degree. Our arts community is better for it.”

Graduating Visual Arts project a bold step forward

Xiao Xue with her walking camper

It sounds like a riddle: what has six legs, was built for camping and can walk on its own? The answer, however, is no joke — it’s actually the incredibly complex final project of Visual Arts BFA graduate Xiao Xue.

Aptly titled “Something to Ponder On: A Walking Camper,” Xue’s project is exactly that: a classically Canadian Slumber Queen truck camper unit, enhanced by six electric-powered robotic legs which allow it to walk independently. Inspired by a fascination with insects and a friend’s prosthetic leg, Xue has created a remarkable piece that truly gives the viewer something to ponder on.

“Xiao’s walking camper is a highly sophisticated artwork that brings together her poetic, even poignant, vision with matching research and technical skills,” says Visual Arts professor Daniel Laskarin, one of Xue’s instructors. “This piece is among the finest that any graduating student anywhere might produce. Xiao has that combination of independence, imagination, and willingness to learn that made her a great student and a very promising young artist.”

Scroll down for a gallery of images of the project.

An international student from Urumqi — a 1,400-year-old Chinese city of three million on the border of Pakistan and Russia — Xue came to UVic with practically no pre-existing art background. As such, she’s an ideal example of the invaluable skills a fine arts education offers: by combining creative thinking and critical evaluation with hands-on learning, collaborative partnerships and sheer determination, she has not only achieved the practical goal represented by her project but has also earned herself admission to the MFA program at the University of Guelph.

“I make structures with revealing structures,” she explains. “In nature, all organisms that rely on a parasitic relationship need a host to survive and, once deceased, they are no longer seen if they are apart from the host. This similar parasitic relationship not only applies to objects in human society, but it’s fairly common in social relations as well.”

Originally a student in the Art History & Visual Studies department, Xue transferred to Visual Arts after taking the first-year studio elective. “If you want to work in a discipline, the end result should be contributing to the field yourself — but I couldn’t see myself contributing anything unique to art history. I’m more interested in doing than just knowing, and that’s what Visual Arts offers.”

Be sure to watch this short video of Xue’s camper going for walk to get the full effect:


No question, Xue’s piece was the hit of this year’s graduating BFA art show in April. Constructed at a cost of approximately $4,200, her 2,400-pound walking camper was financed through a combination of crowd-sourcing, scholarships, bursaries and out-of-pocket expenses. She also had the assistance of a fellow student in UVic’s Mechanical Engineering department, the support and sponsorship of local machine shop Rainhouse (“This project wouldn’t have happened without them”) and the resources of the Visual Arts department itself. “It was a consistent learning experience with the [Visual Arts] technicians. I had a great four years spending time with them.”

Xue describes the seven-month project, undertaken alongside her other classes, as “a non-stop troubleshooting process” involving hundreds of hours of sketching, welding, woodwork, electronics, 3D modelling, maquette construction and people management. “I start with the final image in my mind and then reverse-engineer it based on what I can’t afford.”

But Xue downplays her artistic accomplishment in favour of a more philosophical outlook. “People say ‘Oh, this is so amazing’ but then they go and drive a machine that goes 60 miles an hour and has air conditioning and a gearbox,” she says. “We’re living in a very impatient age. It’s the best time in history — you can achieve so much in life — but a lot of people complain about our technology and engineering without realizing how much work goes into it, and who is actually doing the work. It’s crazy how cheap technology is: they certainly wouldn’t be able to build their own car for $50,000.”

All of which offers a final insight into Xiao Xue’s walking camper: its slow pace also provides the viewer a meditative opportunity conducive to pondering.