Toronto — Words such as "incredible" and "terrific" come easily to Graham Wishart's lips as he describes the hospitality of the people of Italy who took him and 80 members of a high school symphony orchestra to their hearts during the group's recent concert tour in that country.
The young musicians attend Oakwood Collegiate Institute, where Mr. Wishart is music director. The two-week trip was not the first for students from the school. They have taken their music to various parts of Canada and beyond. Sometimes it is the school band that goes, or a choir, or perhaps a woodwind ensemble. Traveling to play before various audiences helps them develop their expertise. Mr. Wishart says it also contributes to their overall education.
As for this latest trip, the sheer beauty of the towns in which the teen-agers played, and the affection with which they were greeted by the Italians, provided a particularly unforgettable experience. "In L'Acquila, a town of 60,000, there were more people wanting to have the kids stay in their homes than there were kids available," Mr. Wishart said.
"We played in some of the most beautiful places, such as the opera house in Cosenza, with its three balconies. The reaction of the audiences was astounding. The atmosphere was electric, and the kids responded. They never played so well."
In the past young musicians from Oakwood have played in England and Trinidad. They have played in the Yukon and other parts of western Canada, as well as in Moose Factory in northwestern Ontario. Mr. Wishart has vivid recollections of the trip to Moose Factory, when members of the symphony and their instruments (including double basses) filled several big freighter canoes for the trip across the river from Moosonee.
Music is big at Oakwood, where about 350 of the 1,300 students spend part of their day practicing on some instruments. For instance, 18-year-old Janet Parker played French horn in the symphony during her final year at the school. Besides practicing one night a week with the symphony, she was at the school at 7:45 three mornings a week for an hour's ensemble work before classes.
Many students come to Oakwood from distant parts of the city simply because of the music. Mr. Wishart's aim is to give his students a love and understanding of music. "Music," he says, "is a part of their life. We challenge these kids to the limit of their ability."
Sometimes the school building seems to fairly reverberate with all the practicing. At one time, there may be as many as four choirs, five orchestras, and three wind groups making music at the same time. "We use the lunchroom, the auditorium -- any room we can find," he says.
The school is in a working-class part of the city, in a multilingual area that is home to many recent immigrants. Among the parents there is great enthusiasm for the opportunities their children are getting in music. For the trip to Italy the Oakwood Music Parents' Association raised the major part of the $90,000 needed for the trip. The young people themselves also did their own fund raising, which included selling T-shirts to fellow students and peddling fruit about the neighborhood.
Throughout the summer Oakwood students will keep up their music in other parts of the country. Some are studying at the Banff School of Fine Arts, and others are playing in the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra.
Sometime in the near future a group of young Italians will be coming here to visit, staying with the same students who stayed with them and their families during this last concert tour, which, as with the other trips Oakwood boys and girls take, is as important for the "people contact" as for the music. It is all a kind of "cultural exchange," Mr. Wishart says.