It is with profound sadness that we share the news that our friend and School of Music colleague, Dr. Alexander Dunn, passed away unexpectedly on the morning of May 8. “This is a loss that will be deeply felt by members of our School and the wider music community,” says School of Music director Alexis Luko. “On behalf of the School of Music, our deepest condolences go out to Alex’s to loved ones, family, friends and colleagues.”

His sudden passing at just 68 was marked in this May 11 Times Colonist article, which quoted his cousin and lifelong guitar partner Robert Ward as saying, “even in high school, [Alex] was singled out as having a really unique talent.” Ward and Dunn performed together in Boston as recently as April 20, with Ward noting he was in fine health, good spirits and played magnificently. “It was a brilliant performance,” Ward told the TC. “We had a great time playing what was a very difficult program.”

An enviable musical legacy

Beyond spending nearly 34 years at UVic building one of the strongest guitar programs in Canada, Alex also served as president and artistic director of the Victoria Guitar Society, the board of examiners for the Royal Conservatory, and worked as an instructor at the Victoria Conservatory of Music, and at the University of California, Irvine.

“This news is a great shock to the classical guitar world and leaves a chasm in the Victoria guitar scene, where Alex was instrumental in bringing us an amazing array of performers over the years,” posted the Victoria Guitar Society. “We will always remember Alex for his passion for music and his talent at passing this knowledge down to new generations. We’ve lost a friend and an artist.”

An internationally renowned guitarist, Alex was the recipient of UVic’s Sessional Lecturer Teaching Excellence Award in Fine Arts (2019/20), and he received the Provost’s Advocacy and Activism Award (2019) for his work in bringing the Orontes Guitar Quartet from Syria to UVic as visiting artists.

International respect

A virtuoso performer, acclaimed teacher, dedicated mentor and enthusiastic supporter of emerging young talent, Alex was a frequent guest performer at international guitar festivals and a popular adjudicator and competition judge across North America. He was also a protégé of internationally acclaimed flamenco guitar master Pepe Romero, with whom he toured.

“His sight reading and analytical skills are phenomenal,” Romero noted on Dunn’s website. “One need only to bring up his name in the guitar world, and you will sense immediately the respect he commands.” As the TC article notes, Dunn hosted several fundraising concerts by Romero in Victoria, and was instrumental in arranging for his former instructor and mentor to receive an honorary doctorate from UVic. Romero regards Dunn as one of the finest teachers he has encountered. “When I think of Alex, I think of a musician’s musician — a man who commands a vast knowledge of the repertoire,” Romero wrote. “He seems to know more about lute and early music than most specialists.”

Alex was also the recipient of an Institute of International Education grant and the prizewinner of the Internationaler Wettbewerb Freiburg. As a performer, he enchanted audiences across North America and worldwide in South America, Europe, Southeast Asia, China, Japan, Mexico, Cuba, South Africa and New Zealand.

With a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Performance from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and a PhD in musicology from the University of California, San Diego, Alex also spent extensive summer studies at the Aspen Music Festival and the Salzburg Mozarteum.

Dunn with the Orontes Quartet in 2018

Advocacy & Activism

Alex passionately advocated so that people who come from less fortunate backgrounds could excel—a perfect example of this advocacy and activism was his effort in 2018 to bring the Orontes Guitar Quartet to UVic from war-torn Syria.

After the classical guitar ensemble were denied entry to the US in 2017 due to the ongoing Syrian travel ban, Alex spent nearly 18 months working with two US-based organizations — the Artist Protection Fund (APF), an innovative initiative of the Institute of International Education, and the non-profit organization Remember the River — to secure the Orontes a placement at UVic.

As the Canadian arm of Remember the River — a non-profit organization that brings guitars to refugee camps in the Middle East — Alex had already been helping send guitarists into impoverished communities, including on some First Nations. Building on that experience, he helped the Orontes Guitar Quartet escape war-ravaged Syria and to come to UVic to work under his mentorship. He described it at the time as “an exhilarating experience”. 

“Knowing that a group of musicians on the other side of the world — connected by common interests but separated by the chasm of human rights abuses and the outrages of war — was life-changing,” he said. “Suddenly the abstraction of religious and cultural conflict occupied my thoughts in a very real way.”

As a result, the quartet performed across Canada in numerous events supporting refugees and people from war torn countries, bringing a unique narrative of music surviving in times of violence and war. For his efforts, he was named one of just two recipients of UVic’s 2019 Advocacy & Activism Awards (below)

Alexander Dunn with UVic’s Director of Equity & Human Rights Cassbreea Dewis (left)
&  fellow award winner Sage Lacerte, plus then-VP Academic & Provost Valerie Kuehne