Important, engaging Canadian critical voice gone with the passing of Ken Winters, 81
Here is the obituary I've filed to the Star (with two subsequent corrections). But, just before it, I've added a link to a beautiful tribute prepared by CBC Radio. Check it out here.
Ken Winters, multifaceted chronicler and critic of Canada’s 20th century musical coming of age in the classical field, died at his home in Orono on Tuesday night. He was 81.
His writing and the music documentaries, concerts and programs he hosted over nearly four decades on CBC Radio accompanied several generations of Canadians on an exciting road of musical discovery.
Winters had a clear, polished way of speaking on the radio that exuded authority, enthusiasm and deep love of the art, in equal measure. His voice was equally distinctive in print.
“Ken was a stickler for precision in how he expressed his ideas on music,” said longtime friend, retired CBC Radio producer Tom Deacon. “He didn’t like things that were casual.”
According to the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada, Winters wrote his first review for the Winnipeg Free Press in 1956. He moved to Ontario in 1966 to become the music critic for the Toronto Telegram. Since the mid-1990s, Winters had worked as a freelance music critic for the Globe and Mail. His final review appeared on Monday.
The writer’s most tangible legacy is the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Winters contributed many articles and acted as English editor for the first edition.
Winters’ professional life mirrored the tremendous flowering of Canadian musical talent as well as the rise of a new generation of authentically Canadian composers and compositions in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.
Winters was there for the world’s discovery of pianist Glenn Gould, singers Maureen Forrester and Lois Marshall, for Expo ’67, and the building of new arts centres, concert halls and opera houses in Toronto and other Canadian cities. Winters put the events and artists of the day into critical and historical context.
I was intimidated when I first met him 10 years ago. I was a rookie, part-time critic when he smilingly extended his hand to introduce himself.
Crowned with a full head of impeccably groomed salt-and-pepper hair and wearing a trademark cardigan, Winters turned out to be a kind, generous father figure.
The man Deacon described as “a national treasure” was cheerful, polite and deeply interested in everything to do with music. Winters was someone who wanted you to explore, but always do it for the right reasons and the noblest of intentions.
This was, ultimately a man of few words. I confessed to Winters one night, several years ago, how I wasn’t able to remember some of the concerts I had reviewed in the past.
“If you could remember them, you’d go crazy,” was his pithy retort.
There was more to Winters’ life than music: He was also a breeder of champion Peckinese dogs. According to Deacon, he was tending to the needs of a dozen of them in the basement of his house in Orono just a few days ago.
Kenneth Lyle Winters was born into music in Dauphin, Man. , on Nov. 28, 1929. His mother was a pianist and organist. Winters studied piano, voice and composition before turning to writing for the Winnipeg Free Press.
“I think he considered the highlight of his life to have been the time he spent with Nadia Boulanger,” said his wife, Anne Gibson. Winters took a year off to study with the famed Parisian composer and teacher in 1959. “That time gave him a platform to think from,” added Gibson.
Winters met Gibson, then a CBC Radio producer, in 1985, over the preparation of concert broadcasts and documentaries for the tercentenary celebrations of J.S. Bach and George Frideric Handel.
They bonded over a mutual love of music and married shortly thereafter. It was rare not to see them together at Toronto concerts several times a week. Winters, who never became computer-literate, wrote his reviews by hand. Gibson would transcribe them and email them in to his editor.
Gibson said on Wednesday morning that there are plans to organize a public celebration of Winters’ life.
My greatest joy is in knowing that Winters’ final concert experience, a performance of J.S. Bach’s monumental B Minor Mass by Tafelmusik on Sunday afternoon, was of the kind that anyone would be happy to take to their grave.
He wrote in the Globe and Mail:
“[Tafelmusik’s] account of the sublimely terraced supplication of the opening Kyrie, perfectly paced by [conductor Ivars] Taurins, had me, like Toscanini, weeping the hottest tears of my life. The trumpets in the Et ascendit in coelum stood my hair on end. The Confiteor was absolutely thrilling. The serene, massive closing Dona nobis pacem moved our very foundations.”
Here is a modern-classic interpretation of the Agnus Dei and Dona nobis pacem movements from Bach's B Minor Mass, at the hands of Concentus Musicus Wien and conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt: