At age six, Marty Horswill appeared on the stage of the Capitol Theatre as a boy soprano and pianist.
Since then he was a stalwart member of the music community in Nelson as a singer and organizer until his death on Nov. 9 at age 76.
In 2012, he produced KHAOS, a full-fledged opera written and performed by local artists.
The re-imagining of the ancient Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone set in a contemporary world of climate change played to several sold out shows at the Capitol Theatre, toured regionally, and garnered rave reviews including notice by national media.
Nelson composer Don Macdonald wrote the score for the production, with libretto by writer Nicola Harwood. Macdonald says he has never heard of an opera being created and staged in a small city.
“Marty was the driving force that made it happen,” he says. “Every step of the way, Marty was thinking bigger than anybody else. Finding the funds necessary to do it. Gathering the talent necessary to do it. It was just an extraordinary feat.”
As soon as it was confirmed that the production would become several shows at the Capitol, Horswill started organizing a tour. Macdonald says the logistics of organizing a tour for such a large production seemed overwhelming to him.
“Not overwhelming to Marty though. He was willing to take that on and organize it. It was just a huge undertaking. Not for a moment did he let up steam. Not for a moment.”
Horswill and singer Shannon Lythgoe were among the founders of the Amy Ferguson Institute, a local non-profit organization that supports, produces and promotes vocal arts in the West Kootenay and commissioned the opera.
Lythgoe agrees with Macdonald about Horswill’s “dog with a bone” approach to projects, but she also reminds us of another well-known Horswill characteristic: his humour and the ever-present friendly twinkle in his eye.
“Marty had a terrific sense of humour,” she says. “He always managed to find the humour, no matter what. It really was a very fundamental part of his personality. He was a man of great integrity and he was a very compassionate guy.”
Lythgoe sang with him in the Cottonwood Singers and in many musical productions in Nelson.
“Marty was really the go-to singer in any kind of baritone or bass solo work around town. He had a lovely natural singing voice, and he was often called upon. For instance, in his role in The Armed Man [Capitol Theatre, 2010] he had a baritone solo, a very moving performance.”
Bruce Hunter is a former conductor of the Nelson Choral Society and of the Cottonwood Singers, and a member of the Symphony of the Kootenays. He taught music at L.V. Rogers Secondary for 29 years, retiring in 1999.
“As a singer, Marty was very disciplined,” Hunter says. “He wasn’t an amateur. He read well and he had a very good ear. And he could sing very difficult stuff. He was a real student of music.”
Horswill sang in several of the Nelson Choral Society’s annual productions of Handel’s Messiah, conducted by Hunter.
“He knew that in order to be a good leader, you’ve got to be a good follower,” Hunter says. “So when I was conducting, if I was doing things that were right, Marty would compliment me.”
A musical family
In addition to performing in music festivals as a child, Horswill was a member of Amy Ferguson’s Nelson Boys Choir. His father Jack Horswill, who died in 2007 at age 97, was a member of the Nelson band The Troubadors, which performed for the opening of the theatre in 1927. There is still a photo of the band hanging in the Capitol lobby.
Marty Horswill’s daughter Malaika, 31, directs the Vancouver young adult choirs Gracenote and Kôr, after spending her youth in Nelson as an actor and singer. His wife Lena has sung with the Nelson Choral Society for many years.
Horswill was also the producer of the 2015 premiere of a new opera, Jorinda, created by Nelson-based composer Doug Jamieson.
‘He wasn’t noisy about it’
Much of Horswill’s life was spent in community service both in Nelson and overseas. He spent many years with the international development organization CUSO in East Africa, Papua New Guinea, and South Sudan.
In Nelson he was part of an organization that was a precursor to Nelson CARES, had a key role in the formation of the Osprey Community Foundation, and worked for the Forest Stewardship Council.
He also spent a term on Nelson city council in the early 1990s, perhaps following the lead of his grandfather, A.S. Horswill, who served two terms on city council in the 1920s and whose name in large white print still features prominently on the downtown Nelson building he occupied then as a grocery wholesaler.
Marty Horswill’s modest nature is obvious in his response to the success of KHAOS.
“I think it says a huge amount about Nelson,” he told the Star in 2012. “I think it says that we have this amazing critical mass of creative and performing talent in the community.”
Hunter remembers him as an unobtrusively effective member of the arts community.
“Marty was always right in the middle, if not at the spearhead of, a wonderful Nelson kind of renaissance in the arts,” Hunter says.
“But he wasn’t noisy about it. He operated quietly. He worked behind the scenes, but he wasn’t afraid of being in front.”