It wasn’t long ago that raven-haired sisters Colleen and Alicia Venables had audience’s feet tapping to their fiddle tunes played on the family entertainment stage at the Interior Provincial Exhibition in their hometown of Armstrong.
The girls, now in their mid-to-late teens, grew up playing together as a duo, and also with the Youth Symphony of the Okanagan and the Okanagan Symphony.
Musical talent, it turns out, runs in their DNA.
Now living apart, the girls take any opportunity they can to perform together since they have each gone on their own paths, playing solo and in ensembles on more national and international stages.
Alicia, 19, is about to return to Calgary for her second year in Mount Royal’s music performance diploma program, while also concurrently participating in the Mount Royal Conservatory’s advanced performance program. But it’s with her little sister where she really feels most at home, as could be seen recently when their bows flew in unison while performing at the Vernon Farmers’ Market.
“Although we have grown as individuals, we still have an amazing connection,” said Colleen, 16, who is still in high school.
Just recently, the girls were, individually, named among Canada’s best young musicians. After placing in their respective categories at the regional and provincial music festivals, the Venables were victorious at the 2012 National Music Festival, held Aug. 16 to 18 at Keyano College in Fort McMurray, Alta.
Colleen won the top title in the strings category, which came with a $1,500 award, while Alicia won first place in the ensemble category as a member of the MRU (Mount Royal University) Trio.
Besides the nationals’ honour, the sisters have each had an exceptional year while pursuing their education and musical studies.
After a successful fundraiser was held for Colleen by members of the Okanagan Symphony at Sparkling Hill Wellness Resort, the young violinist was able to go to Beijing, China, where she was the only Canadian chosen to compete in the Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition.
“Everyone was really supportive. I could not have done this without family members and the community. The fundraiser saw people support me even though they didn’t know me,” said Colleen, who made the journey in April.
Although she didn’t place in the competition, the young violinist says it was a good experience and the judges gave her excellent feedback.
“(The fundraiser) served as a good opportunity for me to perform the repertoire I had prepared for the competition,” said Colleen. “Every single person there was at a high level. We were around the same age and had the same interests, so I was able to make some good friends.”
Colleen was also able to learn more about her heritage. Accompanied by her mother, Jan, who was born in raised in China, she visited her mom’s hometown for the first time, meeting many family members.
Alicia, in the meantime, spent three weeks of June in the nation’s capital, participating in the young artists program at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre. She got to work with internationally renowned NAC Orchestra conductor/violinist Pinchas Zukerman and violinist/violist Patinka Kopec, who is on faculty at the Manhattan School of Music.
“I did a lot of chamber music lessons and watched a lot of concerts done by the NAC Orchestra. Pinchas and his wife, Amanda (Forsyth), also did a performance on violin and cello for us, which was wonderful,” said Alicia.
“I would love to end up playing with a great orchestra or symphony especially since doing so much playing in an ensemble. I love both ensemble and solo playing, and it helps to learn both as you always have to collaborate with someone.”
Meanwhile, Colleen, who travels regularly to Calgary to study at the MRU Conservatory’s Academy, is pursuing her dream of being a solo artist. She returned to the Albertan city in July to once again participate in Mount Royal’s international music exchange program, Morningside Music Bridge. There she took part in the concerto competition and won a position to play in concert with the Calgary Philharmonic. Alicia, it turns out, won the same competition last year.
“I made a promise to myself to always do music as long as I want to do it. If I am not in love with what I am doing, I’m not going to give it my 100 per cent,” said Colleen. “I also think an education is as important as music. It’s good to have a back-up plan. You have to keep your options open. I love learning English, math, and languages are also important. You need the social skills to talk to people.”
And although the girls are about to part ways to return back to their respective studies, they will reunite in October to play a piece they have performed together for years, Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins, with the Calgary Civic Symphony.
“We have both matured a lot the past few years, not only mentally and emotionally, but in our musicality. We can communicate better which helps us express the music in the piece,” said Alicia.
The sisters are especially grateful to their parents, Jan and Bob, their teachers and mentors, including the Okanagan Symphony’s music director Rosemary Thomson, who have shown the girls immeasurable support over the years.
“We want to thank everyone,” said Alicia, “Being away from home now, I realize how much support I have received from my mom and dad and teachers… When you go away somewhere, you realize how much you miss it here and the support.”