Orchestral conductor Larry Strachan is one of Manitoba’s best kept secrets. He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music; he is one of very few black conductors in Canada and he has been on this journey for more than 20 years.
Larry has had some opportunities with orchestras in Nova Scotia, Prince George, B.C., and in Vancouver but a full-time, regular job has eluded him so far.
Son of immigrant parents from Grenada, Larry said he was not naturally drawn to music:
"My parents enrolled me and my sister Leisha in piano classes as part of our extracurricular activity," he said. "I had to be pushed and prodded to practise. I was more interested in drawing."
However, as he progressed with piano lessons, Larry said he came to love music by the time he was in high school.
"This is when I knew I would study music in university and major in piano.
"In my third year of university I took conducting," he explained. "I had a chance to put together a brass quartet, and to conduct a small concert. I enjoyed that very much and was hooked on the feeling."
Larry enrolled in a three-week intensive conducting course in the Czech Republic in 1997.
"I soaked up everything I could and came back with copious notes and videos. I felt more confident in applying for conducting jobs."
Larry said that after he graduated and got all his credentials qualifying him as a conductor, he began applying for jobs as assistant conductor and attending interviews but always falling short. Applying for conducting jobs involves an audition process.
"There is a lot of rejections. The process is rigorous. I have auditioned with various orchestras from Winnipeg to Thunder Bay, Edmonton, Prince George, Vancouver and others.
"I would make it through the aural and written tests (and) interviews with the board members, to the final round where you had to perform and talk."
He admitted that it can be tough to take.
"I was discouraged by all that rejection. There is always that little something more you had to do to succeed. I took the feedback I received seriously and acted upon suggestions"
Larry said he was advised to take some classes in yoga to loosen up, which he did. He identified Bramwell Tovey, former artistic director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, as someone who encouraged, supported and coached him for many years. Tovey even invited Larry to spend a week shadowing him in Vancouver.
For most artists, there comes a time when reality sets in and one has to put their artistic careers on hold for practical reasons. Larry got a job in the financial field to pay the bills, married opera singer and criminal lawyer Heulwen Jones and together they have two boys.
"I have not given up my dream," he said. "I am still applying for positions, but I had to do what I had to do."
Fortune smiled on Larry when the pandemic gave him one of his career highlights when Vicki Young, managing director of the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra asked him to conduct an MCO concert at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
"That was awesome, I was very happy and grateful for this opportunity," he said.
To create his own opportunity, Larry, with the help of his very supportive family, started a non-profit organization, Chamber Orchestra Without Borders. They received funding for a Black History Month Concert in 2016 and a Canada 150 concert in 2018 to rave reviews from community members, proud to have someone of this calibre in the Winnipeg’s Black community.
Larry said he would love to have more concerts but it’s expensive and funding is not always available.
"Instead of relying on government funding I would like to have corporate donors and patrons of the arts support the orchestra. To put on a decent concert costs about $20,000. I’m optimistic about having another Black History Month concert next February."
Larry also hopes that he will achieve his dream of working full time as a conductor in the near future.
He feels ready.
"I have to credit my wife for teaching me how to do a proper interview" he said.