VSO pops conductor bows out

Brian Jackson retires after 17 years on Victoria stage

Victoria Symphony Orchestra’s principal pops conductor Brian Jackson retires after a final series of concerts this weekend.

He’s read the news on the BBC and goose-stepped with John Cleese, yet Brian Jackson is most familiar to Victoria residents as the symphony’s principal pops conductor.

After 17 years though, Jackson, 68, is retiring. This weekend he will conduct his last three performances as PPC.

With the Canadian College of Performing Arts he will conduct the troupe through 45 minutes of Broadway song and dance medleys.

“You’re getting a theatrical experience for a symphonic price,” says Jackson. It’s the fourth time he’s collaborated with the Oak Bay-based college, a group of performers he describes as wonderful. “They’re young but respectful and professional.”

Victoria is a long way from Jackson’s Ontario home, but even further from where he grew up in Cornwall, England. From a working class family, Jackson says at age two he sang along with the radio and was picking out tunes on an aunt’s piano. By five he was taking piano lessons and by age 13 was off to Clifton College in Bristol on a music scholarship where he learned to conduct and play the organ.

At Clifton he also met John Cleese. Although Cleese was four years older, the actor who went on to Monty Python fame picked out Jackson to work alongside him in an outdoor play.

“He was the platoon sergeant and that’s where he got that walk – he was 6’4” even at that time,” Jackson recalled.

Cleese went on to Cambridge and Jackson to Oxford to read music. At 21, he took a break from music and to work at the BBC as a studio manager. But music called.

“On the other side of the glass the BBC symphony would be recording and I would be telling the conductor ‘the brasses are too loud here, are you sure you mean this tempo?’”

Adventure also then called and he emigrated to Canada in 1968, ending up in Peterborough, Ont. as a church organist. After six months, he was conducting the Peterborough Symphony. He was 25.

Four years later he took time to study in Germany and Vienna before heading to the London, Ontario symphony where he conducted for 36 years. In 1995 Jackson stepped in as choral society conductor with the Victoria Symphony Orchestra and in turn became principal pops conductor.

“I knew by age 45 I was not going to the Berlin Philharmonic, I knew I wasn’t at that level, so I created my own sort of genre: pop concerts.”

And although Jackson will conduct the opening set of pop concerts next season, the series will have a facelift, VSO’s executive director says.

In a bid to attract younger audiences the pop series will include a Beatles Sgt. Pepper tribute, says Mitchell Krieger.

Guest conductor Sean O’Loughlin will step behind the music stand as well as maestra Tania Miller, who will conduct the Christmas concert.

Jackson will continue to conduct London, Sudbury and Kitchener/Waterloo symphonies, but he will miss the VSO. “It’s now one of the top orchestras in the country – they’re disciplined and they love what they’re doing.”

If you go

Broadway Spectacular runs March 30 and 31 at 8 p.m. with a matinée April 1 at 2 p.m., at the Royal Theatre, 805 Broughton St.

Tickets start at $33 and are available from the Victoria Symphony Box Office at 250-385-6515. For more information go to victoriasymphony.ca.


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