Guest pianist Sarah Hagen will be performing a newly created piece of music alongside the Nanaimo Chamber Orchestra at Knox church on March 18. Inspired by the 1887 mine disaster in Nanaimo, Hagen and the orchestra premier the piece March 17 and 18 in Nanaimo and Parksville. — Submitted by Bruce Farquharson

1887 mining disaster inspires chamber orchestra piece

Nanaimo Chamber Orchestra to perform in Parksville March 18

The Nanaimo Chamber Orchestra, along with guest pianist Sarah Hagen, will be premiering a new piece of music made just for them at a pair of concerts in Nanaimo and Parksville, March 17 and 18.

Named Esplanade: In Memory of the Seven and the Seven, the piece takes inspiration from the worst mining disaster in B.C.’s history: the 1887 Esplanade Mine explosion in Nanaimo and, in particular, the seven miners who survived the accident, and the seven whose bodies were never found. One-hundred-and-forty-eight people lost their lives in the incident.

The piece came about when Hagen asked composer and university friend Richard Covey (a lecturer at the University of Prince Edward Island) to compose a piece for her and the chamber orchestra ahead of this upcoming concert.

Given no instruction as to the piece, Covey said he began digging into Nanaimo’s history for inspiration.

“I was reading about the early settlement and the simple mining culture that developed, and how that started to grow and boom and led to people trying to make as much money as possible, as quickly as possible, maybe cutting some corners, and ended up having this disaster,” he said.

“The interesting thing was how this event affected pretty much everyone in the community at that time… it sort of shaped the community, I think. It sort of pulled it together.”

Seeing echoes in the disaster effecting how the community formed, Covey said he focused on “what birth comes out of disaster.”

The seven survivors and the seven whose bodies were never recovered also plays into the piece.

“We have seven note-long melodies, seventh harmony which is an unstable, sort of sorrowful kind of jabbing harmony,” he said.

“There’s a very simple hymn-like or folk-like melody arranged in seven notes,” and various other nods to that number.

“It’s pretty amazing in a lot of ways,” Nanaimo Chamber Orchestra music director Karl Rainer said of Covey’s piece, the opportunity to play it, and the concert as a whole.

“We’re excited about playing it,” he said of Esplanade. While some compositions are very technically challenging and a sort of “trial-by-fire” for the orchestra, “in this particular case, we like the piece, the piece is really moving for the audience, and we can play it and we like to play it,” said Rainer.

The concert, called Rhapsody & Reverie, focuses on Scandinavian and Romantic pieces including Max Bruch’s Serenade on a Swedish Folk Melody and Edward Elgar’s Great Malvern Suite.

While the Esplanade piece may seem in some ways not to fit with the others, Rainer said the accessible melody and its focus on tugging at heartstrings does go with the rest of the program.

“It’s got a really tough, interesting piano part,” said Rainer.

“(And) he’s incorporated some hymn-like structures and some, what I would call angst-ridden portions of the music. There is a section which sounds like mine sirens going off… He’s thinking about the despair of the accident itself, the sounds of the accident, the hope that the community has, and how the community pulls together, and he’s put this all into a big sonic landscape, I guess is the best way to put it.”

The Nanaimo concert takes place at Brechin United Church (1998 Estevan Rd. in Nanaimo) on Saturday, March 17 at 7:30 p.m. The Parksville concert is Sunday, March 18 at 2:30 p.m. at Knox United Church (345 Pym St. in Parksville). Tickets are $20 for adults, $5 for students, and those under 13 years old enter free. They can be purchased at Mulberry Bush Book Stores in Parksville and Qualicum Beach, or through the Port Theatre ( or call 250-754-8550).

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