Articles by Rosemary Phillips

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Marlin Wolfe - Conductor, Gourmet Cook and Author

UPDATE 2023: Heaven has gained another musician, as Maestro Marlin Wolfe journeyed Home on June 15, 2023, just shy of his 80th birthday. My condolences are extended to the family, and his many friends. There is to be a Celebration of Life on Saturday, August 5th, on Gabriola Island, his home of many years.

I treasure my memories of Marlin, and the times we spent together writing the following stories, and promoting the Vancouver Island Symphony. He gently put up with this rather eccentric writer/publicist - for example, as I dressed up as a leprechaun to be the announcer for one of Marlin's first VIS Education Shows. Marlin, thank you for your patience. Thank you for the gift of music.

The last wonderful news from Marlin was of the publication of his book "The Maestro's Favourites - A Symphony of Taste" in February 2018. This was exciting news indeed, putting together the maestro's passions for music and gourmet cooking. The following article helps tell that connection.

A Gourmet Feast of Music (2007)
Releasing the Reins (2007)
The Show Must Go On (2002)

Marlin Wolfe in his herb garden
Photo by Rosemary Phillips
INTRO: The first article "A Gourmet Feast of Music" was published in More Living Magazine in 2007. The second article "Releasing the reins" appeared in The Score, the Vancouver Island Symphony's newsletter as did "The Show Must Go On" after Marlin Wolfe suffered a minor stroke.

A Gourmet Feast of Music

An interview article by Rosemary Phillips, 2007

Conducting music is like creating a gourmet meal – combining a variety of ingredients that result in a magnificent concert or an absolutely delicious feast! “When preparing food I know all the necessary procedures,” explains Maestro Marlin Wolfe, gourmet cook and conductor. “Preparation has to be done beforehand, lots of it, just like when conducting a performance.”

The key is planning. “When you create a meal you don't just throw it together, you have to plan your courses and have each course lead into the next, like a teaser,” adds Wolfe whose careful planning skills also include the design of his home, kitchen, and beautiful flower and herb garden (which includes a six-foot rosemary bush) overlooking the ocean on Gabriola Island. “If you are doing a five-course meal you plan for the right acidity, the right taste.”

So too with symphonic music. “Planning is very important when you are doing a program. I try to entice the listener, much like the diner at your table, to the next thing on the menu, the next piece of music, and I always like to finish with a good finale. Once I have picked the program it's a matter of studying it and inspiring the orchestra. The last thing is the passion of the music, to portray it to the audience so they feel it. As with good food, it's the taste, the aroma, the quality. If you can create the atmosphere right from the beginning you've got the audience hooked. Otherwise it would be like going to someone's house for a turkey dinner and not smelling the turkey in the oven.”

Marline Wolfe
gourmet cook at the stove
Photo by Rosemary Phillips

While Maestro Wolfe's conducting interests began at the early age of 16, his culinary skills developed over time. “I always did some type of cooking at home. My grandmother was Norwegian and I asked her how to make some of her specialties. I was really interested in different cuisine, mainly French. Now I like to try new things. I also like to create dishes. With The Maestro’s Dinner (auctioned off annually at Face the Music) this year I started out with cream of asparagus soup. What I wanted throughout the meal was the combination of hot and cold sensations. The soup was hot and green, and the garlic flan in the middle of the bowl was room temperature and beige. Not only was it striking in appearance but the sensation of the taste was unbelievable.”

Wolfe, who has conducted for orchestras across North America and Europe, and recently returned from performing in Croatia continued, “Everything you do in life you develop.” And, just as Wolfe has spent the last 13 years developing the Vancouver Island Symphony into one of Canada's best regional professional orchestras, he is stepping down from that role to further develop his own conducting career. “I'm with the International Music Center of America and they send me all over Europe. And of course, I always try out the food in every country I visit.”

Meanwhile, Wolfe will still be in the background this season, checking the conductors who are vying to lead the VI Symphony on to its next level of development – and watching how they take the ingredients of his programming to serve up a gourmet meal of music.

Releasing the Reins

An interview article by Rosemary Phillips, 2007

The Maestro
Photo by Rosemary Phillips
In twelve years, under the guiding baton of Maestro Marlin Wolfe, the Vancouver Island Symphony has grown from a fledgling symphony orchestra into one of Canada’s best regional professional orchestras. And now, while the VI Symphony moves In to the Music and through to full mastery and maturity, much like in a coming of age Symphonic Rite of Passage, Marlin Wolfe begins his own passage and transition towards retirement from his position as artistic director. As Marlin releases the reins during this twelfth season, the search begins for a new artistic director to lead the VI Symphony on to another level, like the transition and pause segueing from the first movement of a symphony, the Allegro, into the second, Andante.

“It’s time for new ideas,” explained Marlin, then he chuckled, “not that my ideas aren’t good. It’s always good to have fresh faces. That’s basically why this last year we started to have different conductors.” Marlin is certainly happy with the accomplishments of the VIS. “One thing I am very proud of is the high standard of the orchestra. It comes from having good musicians. And we are developing an international reputation. International artists enjoy performing with the VIS because of the quality of the orchestra.”

Another aspect he can be very proud of is the educational component of the organization and the Education Concerts and programs that have now been extended yearly to over 7500 children in the Nanaimo area, Campbell River and Duncan and have reached schools as far away as Tofino.

The forthcoming transition requires careful timing for both the organization and for Marlin himself. Symphony followers will notice throughout this next season that Marlin will be gradually stepping back. Assistant Conductor Gerald van Wyck will be leading the Messiah concerts at Christmas and a guest conductor will lead Smouldering Passion next April. “I have another engagement for that date,” explained Marlin, “as I move into the next phase of my own music work.”

Like any proud parent Marlin will be in the background in the next couple of years. “I want the audience to know I’m not abandoning the orchestra. I’ll still be making sure that things are OK here. I’ll be doing the programming for the next year, and I will be continuing with the VIS as Conductor Laureate. It’s been a long time for me, without a break,” added Marlin. “Thirteen years. I’m not retiring from conducting, just retiring from being artistic director. I’m going to be taking it a little easier in life without the pressure of that position. What this does is free me up to follow other aspects of my musical work, such as guest conducting, for music has always been my number one drive and will continue to be so.”

Marlin was first approached in 1993 to conduct an orchestra that was initially known as the Nanaimo Symphony. “I only agreed to do so if the organization would make it into a professional orchestra. I came up with a three-year plan and hired a fellow who was with the VSO to help me with the organizing. I had to work a full year to get it going.” The result was a premier concert in the fall of 1994 in St. Andrews United Church of a brand new professional orchestra for Nanaimo. And four years later that new orchestra was given a permanent home in The Port Theatre.

Over those thirteen years Marlin has organized and experienced programmes and concerts of incredible calibre. “My greatest joy has been in creating programs that the audience and musicians love,” he mused. “The hardest and most difficult part of the job, the part I really hated, was having to let a musician go. When it was necessary I had to do it – it was nothing personal. Now after 13 years I would like to just go and conduct, which is a lot easier. Last year I was a guest conductor in Lecce, Italy and had four curtain calls. The reception was phenomenal, and you know the Italians – if they don’t like the performance they let you know.”

After his stroke while conducting The Nutcracker in December of 2001, Marlin was forced to begin making changes in his life. “I had to cut back on teaching. That was hard to do because I love teaching. I don’t have a class right now but I do have some students wanting lessons. This I enjoy.”

But there will be more to Marlin’s new life than his music and conducting; he will be spending time with his personal interests. “There’s woodworking, which I love. I haven’t done that for years. I once designed a staircase that won a national prize and was featured in Canadian Workshop magazine. I love creating things. I love to cook, on a gourmet level. Around the home, there’s always a project; it never ends. I have 110 pots of flowers hanging and on the ground and they need tending and watering. And I’ve got a herb garden to accompany my cooking, with every herb imaginable, including a six-foot high rosemary bush.”

Nanaimo can certainly be proud of its very own symphony and Marlin has certainly had a major part in making this so. Meanwhile, time for Marlin is well planned ahead. “One doesn’t just get up and say, ‘Well, that’s it.’ It takes a couple of years for new things to get into place. Besides, a musician never retires. I don’t know of conductors who stop conducting. If you have the passion it never ends.” Laughed Marlin, “You keep going like an Eveready battery.”

The Show Must Go On

An interview article by Rosemary Phillips, 2002

Marlin Wolfe - Conductor, VIS
Marlin Wolfe - Conductor
Marlin Wolfe was the artistic director of the Vancouver Island Symphony at the time of this interview. We often hear of situations where the “show must go on” but not usually so close at hand and with such a life-threatening situation. Maestro Wolfe’s dedication to his art, his music, and the Vancouver Island Symphony was so evident as he struggled, with great personal difficulty, to make sure that the show did indeed go on. The following interview took place in early 2002, shortly after his stroke, and was published in The Score, the newsletter for the VI Symphony. In 2008 Maestro Wolfe stepped down from his position with the VI Symphony to focus more on his conducting career in Europe and across North America.

Everything was going so well until...

The 2001-2002 season “Musical Voyages” took on a whole new meaning for the Vancouver Island Symphony and Maestro Marlin Wolfe; while the orchestra reached to new heights Maestro Wolfe faced one of the greatest challenges in his life.

“We’ve had a terrific start to the season,” explained Nanaimo’s 2001 Excellence in Culture Award recipient in a recent interview. “Every concert we have done so far has been sold out. We started out with Northern Lights, which went very well. Violinist Moshe Hammer is always a good draw for Nanaimo.”

Moscow Nights, with Nanaimo pianist Peter Kurpita, was enthusiastically received by the audience. “Of course, when you have a home-town soloist, the audience loves him.” What really topped off this concert were the Russian ballet suites. “They were test pieces because we haven’t done too much modern Russian music. It’s something we’ll do more of because the audience really liked it.”

Then came the Nutcracker in December. That was when something tragic, and yet very remarkable, happened and Maestro Wolfe’s musical voyage took a detour. “We did all the rehearsals and after the dress rehearsal I took my score to my room, then came back to the orchestra pit and I noticed I couldn’t lift my leg. I thought that was kind of funny. I sat down, discussed what I had to discuss, then realized that something strange had happened because my right foot wouldn’t negotiate itself. The feeling eventually went up my side. I hadn’t brought my car so I walked over to the hotel. It was a bit of a strain because whatever it was had already happened. At that time I didn’t really realize what it was. There were a few things I had to do, like go to the dry-cleaners to pick up my suits and shirts for the next few days. I was having trouble doing all this. I lay down after having something eat, had a rest, then got ready for the show. It was at that point I realized it was more serious than I thought.”

A very difficult and critical decision...

As the age-old adage says - “The show must go on.” Maestro Wolfe had to make a very difficult decision. “There was nobody to conduct the performance. I walked back into the pit, about half an hour before the show. Jim, the soundman for the Port Theatre, saw me and noticed I wasn’t doing too well. He came and asked what the matter was, then called an ambulance, which came right away. The medics didn’t want me to conduct but I had to do it because there was nobody else. People had already started coming into the hall. Well, I had got this far… “

And Maestro Wolfe continued on… by perching himself against a stool for support. “I’ve never sat to conduct before. To the orchestra it looked like I was standing. We got through it quite well. The St. John’s Ambulance volunteers were there at intermission to give me oxygen and to make sure everything was running, and as soon as the performance was over an ambulance took me to the hospital. “My doctor happened to be at the performance and was quite impressed with it. He couldn’t believe that I conducted after a stroke. I got put through all the tests, and thank goodness it was a mild stroke. I’m doing physiotherapy now, and I’m just about back to normal. I’ll be back on the stage when I need to be.”

As a result of the stroke, Maestro Wolfe missed out on Christmas Fantasy with Joëlle Rabu. David Hoyt, the resident conductor from Edmonton, was invited to help out. “I’ve known David for many years. It was a brand new show so he had to learn it at the last minute, but he did a very good job.”

Having a stroke makes you think about different things

Meanwhile, Maestro Wolfe worked at home on the next year’s programming. “It looks good. I’ve also had a chance to catch up on some other things that I need to do. And if I need a rest I just take it easy. Having a stroke makes you think about different things instead of always work, but at the same time it gets in the way. It is a warning to take things easier. I don’t think I overdo it with certain things but I often do a lot of meetings that require my time and they are more stressful than the music. I might just cut down on that part of it and give the help when they need it.”

Needless to say, members of the orchestra, audience, and community were concerned. “I’d like to thank the orchestra for being so understanding towards me. They understood and were very supportive. Many of the musicians have phoned and kept track of my progress. It’s nice to know that they are concerned about what’s happened. And the public too. They have been very supportive. They all wish me to get well and that’s what I’m doing. It’s hard to put an old guy like me down.”

Maestro Marlin Wolfe made a remarkable recovery, and after six more years as founding conductor, stepped down in 2008 from his position. Meanwhile he has left a legacy in what has become one of BC's exceptional professional regional orchestras. The baton was handed over to Pierre Simard and in 2023 to Cosette Justo Valdes. For more information about concerts, programs and outreach visit the Vancouver Island Symphony's web site.

NOTE: There are many more articles on this site about great musicians and artists - see Index of Articles.

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