Melissa Hill rehearses on a 111-year-old grand piano recently donated to the Mid Island Performing Arts Festival. On Sept. 22 she will perform at a concert at St. Andrew’s United Church recognizing the donation.(Josef Jacobson/The News Bulletin)

Mid Island Performing Arts Festival receives donation of 111-year-old piano

Instrument was originally owned by festival’s founder, Andrew Dunsmore

A 111-year-old grand piano belonging to the founder of Nanaimo’s Upper Island Musical Festival is finding a new home at St. Andrew’s United Church.

Andrew Dunsmore was a prominent Nanaimo music teacher who from 1925 until his death in 1955 served as organist and choirmaster at St. Andrew’s United Church. In 1928 he founded the Upper Island Musical Festival, which this year changed its name to the Mid Island Performing Arts Festival.

Dorothy Rowledge, who has been involved with the festival ever since 1937, first as a competitor and now in an administrative role, was one of Dunsmore’s students and learned to play piano on his 1908 German-made Bechstein Model A.

“Most people didn’t own a grand piano back in the ’40s, so it was a great novelty to play a grand piano at that point,” she said.

After Dunsmore died, his youngest daughter Adele, also a music teacher, took possession of the piano before ultimately passing it on to her son Wade Nesmith. Three years ago Nesmith contacted his cousin, festival president Andrea Bertram, to tell her that he was downsizing and thinking of refurbishing the old piano and donating it to a university. Bertram mentioned the festival association was in need of a piano and suggested he gift it to them instead.

On Sept. 22 the the group will unveil the newly rebuilt piano at a concert and dedication at St. Andrew’s United Church. Dunsmore’s descendants will be in attendance and the event will feature performances by festival piano competitors past and present.

“I remember very vaguely pulling myself up on the legs of that thing, probably shouldn’t have been doing it,” Bertram said of her memories of the instrument. “So it’s very emotional for our family and (Nesmith) could have donated it just in his name and his mother and dad, but he wanted to be inclusive of the whole family.”

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Among the performers at the concert is jazz pianist and singer Melissa Hill, who competed at the festival from the mid-’80s to mid-’90s and made it to provincials on multiple occasions. Hill now lives in Nanaimo and works as a music instructor and encourages her students to compete at the festival level.

Hill has played centenarian pianos in the past. Back when she was studying music at UBC her grand piano wouldn’t fit in her apartment so she used her friend’s mother’s 100-year-old Heintzman.

“Actually I wrote my first couple albums on that piano, so I do have experience playing an older piano,” she said.

Hill will perform an original jazz composition as well as Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor. Last week she tried out the piano for the first time.

“The touch feels really nice. The tone is fantastic,” Hill said. “And playing a Chopin piece with a lot of trills and runs, there’s a lot of agility to the touch and a really warm, tender sound. It’s beautiful.”

The piano will be housed at St. Andrew’s, as it is the festival’s longtime venue and because of its connection to Dunsmore.

“The church is absolutely delighted that the piano has come home to St. Andrew’s and we are so appreciative of being able to use it during Sunday services and other events that are held at our church,” said St. Andrew’s board chair Elaine Winquist.

WHAT’S ON … Mid Island Performing Arts Festival Welcomes Home our Piano concert at St. Andrew’s United Church, 311 Fitzwilliam St., on Sunday, Sept. 22 at 2 p.m. General admission $12 at the door, $10 for students and seniors.

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