This Week In Art/Culture/Entertainment

By John Swartz

Karen Hilfman Millson was the kind of person who could change the atmosphere in any room she entered. She was in charge, without having to announce or demand it. It had nothing to do with people needing to look up to her (they did) or heed her words. I think she might have thought of herself as the least significant person in a room and everyone else were the important component.

That’s’ what made her significant, she made a life’s work out of helping people to become whole, for the first time, or again. As a United Church minister, at St. Paul’s from 1996 to 2013, and then still serving the church as a regional minister and in other capacities, the messages she delivered may have started from a bible passage, but they went way beyond and drew on other philosophies (not necessarily religious). Often the message was more about having faith in one’s self than any external influence.

Karen Hilfman Millson
February 24, 1956 — February 21, 2024

She championed the St. Paul’s congregation to express themselves artistically, most notably mounting musicals, which the public received as they would by any other community theatrical company for excellence in production and performance and which always involved people not part of the St. Paul’s community.

She also, along with Paul Browning, could be accused of being progressive, re-positioning St. Paul’s as not just a place to serve membership of the congregation, but the larger community.

She and Browning started a Sunday afternoon service designed for those who don’t go to church, with contemporary music, and stories of struggle and success from people just like those who found themselves sitting in the room. From that, several people evolved to become members of the St. Paul’s community. It was not the goal, but a result. It functioned more as a Sunday afternoon social club. The message was not what the bible said to do (having attend many, I can’t recall many times anything was read from the bible), but more about even though you may have struggled in life, you can still operate with personal fortitude and a personal moral rudder and have a successful life.

A legacy of her time at St. Paul’s is, today the church has a commitment to art, especially Native art (they have a permanent gallery, the Ogimaa Miskwaaki Gallery, which started as the church’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation’s Call to Action). The church welcomed the Orillia Jazz Festival as part of their Sunday service. Including music, the musicians and listeners grew to becoming a venue for other concerts, which lead to a total remodelling of the sanctuary to also serve as concert venue. St. Paul’s is the home of the Roots North Music Festival and will be central to the revived Lightfoot Days Festival. Heck, they even have a Pub Night now, providing an opportunity for musicians to have an audience.

Except for the jazz festival those things came after her time as minister at St. Paul’s, but her vision of what the church should be solidified the notion of St. Paul’s growing into a cultural hub in Orillia, a natural progression of thought with the membership.

Karen Hilfman Millson and Gordon Lightfoot at ST. Paul’s Centre February 2013

Which brings us to the thing most Orillians who have little contact with St. Paul’s will associate the image of Karen and her place in the community – Gordon Lightfoot. More specifically the interviews she conducted, privately and in public with Gord. One she conducted in February 2013 packed the church to standing room only and covered a range of topics of interest to the public. Previous interviews were more introspective; those were heard for the first time at last year’s Lightfoot Days Festival. She provided a documentation of Canada’s ultimate storyteller, which added to the portrait from a different interviewer’s perspective than say this writer’s compendium of interviews with Gord.

“He told different stories this time because it got into some different topics that he hasn’t always got into, and he got into some poignant moments that were quite touching I thought, that he had the space to be able to do that and go that way,” said Hilfman Millson. I’m sure those interviews will serve as reference material for authors for years to come.

In totality, that was just one small point of what she left behind. Hundreds, if not thousands will remember her for much more than that. On the day she died I wrote, “There should be more Karens in our community, and now we have none; such a great loss.”

Karen’s funeral is Saturday February 24 at 11 a.m. at St. Paul’s. In keeping with her vision of the joyful aspects of life there will be music in the preceding hour and a tea and wine and cheese reception afterward. Those who cannot attend can watch the funeral on Youtube.


The Cellar Singers have their spring concert happening February 24 at St. James’ Anglican Church at 7:30 p.m.

Autumn Debassige

The program features the music of Maurice Duruflé, his Requiem and Motets. Most of Duruflé’s compositions were for organ (he was assistant organist at Notre Dame in Paris and at the same time organist at St-Étienne-du-Mont, also in Paris) and piano, with two orchestral pieces. However, when it comes to choral work, most choirs of note have done concerts featuring his work.

The featured soloist is mezzo-soprano Autumn Debassige, and organist Matthew Larkin (a multi-disciplinary artist, recitalist, accompanist, conductor, composer and recording artist)  will accompany the choir. You can get tickets online.

The Orillia Concert Band’s spring concert is March 2 at St. Paul’s Centre. The theme of the concert is movie music. There’s a lot of good movie music to choose from and it all leads to a finale featuring Alex Teske and Dean Jobim-Bevans singing Time To Say Goodbye. You may have seen, or heard the version with Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman, if not, here you go. It was never in a movie, but what the heck, the best way to experience it is the video taped performance.

Cal Lander will play solo euphonium in the band’s rendition of Cinema Paradiso. Cal is one of the finest euphonium players and always does a memorable job.

They will also play a James Bond medley and another from Evita. You can get tickets for the concert online.

A concert of laughter is happening March 8 at the Opera House when the Old Dance Hall Players do their improv show, Guns and Rosies. What’s it about? We don’t know, they’re going to make it up before your eyes and ears. That’s’ the nature of imrov comedy. It’s a good thing these folks always seem to get laughs (I once sat through a Second City show and didn’t laugh). You can get tickets online.

Other Opera House events in March include Sean McCann March 17; Julie et l’univers March 22 (a dance program choreographed by Laurence Lemieux and inspired by a painting by Jean-Paul Lemieux); and Irish Mythen March 23 (dynamite performer, lots of good seats available). Get tickets for those online.

New Music

Cassie Dasilva has another new tune to listen to/watch. Middle Child is out just a month after Part of the Club. I find her videos to be very well produced and compliment the music well.

Danny Webster also has a new song out. Numb is the third of recently released new music he’s made. The previous one, Enemy, reminded me of stuff John Lennon used to record and this one is in the same ballpark. You can listen to all his music here.

The Shorts

  • The Mariposa Folk Festival’s next off-season concert is Mar. 9  with Boreal (Katherine Wheatley, Tannis Slimmon, Angie Nussey) at St. Paul’s Centre; they have tickets on sale now… the annual audition concert is April 27 and it’s free to attend.
  • The Roots North Music Festival main stage lineups are set.  Friday Apr. 19 the Redhill Valleys and Bleeker will perform at St. Paul’s Centre, and Saturday its Begonia, Spencer Burton and Julian Taylor. Still to come are venue lineups. Get tickets online.
  • The City is preparing for the weekly Sunday evening Concerts in the Park series. The park is Couchiching Beach Park at the Aqua Theatre. There is no line up yet, but they are also including an Artisan Market as part of the events.  There is an application online to fill out and you have until March 15 to do so.
  • The Leacock Museum has been running Closed for The Season (With Some Exceptions), but that changes March 2 when it reopens and present a new exhibit, From War to Wonders: Mapping Escapism in a Time of Turmoil. The exhibit examines the effect of both wars on literature and will feature artifacts of gifts Leacock received.
  • The Orillia Museum of Art and History has three exhibits to see; The main floor has a solo exhibit by Robyn Rennie called Seeing Beyond; Each piece is really two pieces, with one version being in colour and the other being the same thing but in white so you can see how she created the 3rd dimension; another exhibit is a series of old 8mm films showing Orillia as it used to be. Grant’s Legacy: Capturing Orillia’s History on Film is made up of 32 reels, some short, some not; you can see them anytime, but their movie night every Thursday until April 18– complete with wine, beer and popcorn – is a good time to go; also see, Sybil, a collection of fibre art by artists associated with the celebrated Sybil Rampen… St. Paul’s Centre has the Call to Action 83 Art Project in the Ogimaa Miskwaaki Gallery… Hibernation Arts has  the work of solo artist Zane Cook for Black History Month, a new collection of pieces by ODAC artists, and is looking for submissions for the March feature, Wimmen; get in touch with Molly by Feb 29… Peter Street Fine Arts has a collection of work from the Bayside Artists featured for February and March.
  • The Leacock Medal for Humour’s annual student humourous writing competition submission period is on now and closes April 15.  Ontario students are eligible to enter and the top prize is $1,500, with two $750 runners up prizes. You can find out details online. Winners get to read their stories at the annual Meet The Authors night June 21.
  • Couchiching Craft Brewing has Saturday Night Drag Disco happening Feb. 24; Will Davis and Chris Robinson are in Feb. 25; the Thunderstealers are in Mar. 1; and Mar 2 is a fundraiser for Green Haven (tickets) with Melanie and Dan Bazinet and Alex Kaye Black… Quayle’s Brewery has David Stone in to play Feb. 24; J J Blue Feb. 25; Vince Therrien Feb. 29; and Stephan Barnard Mar. 1… The Hog ‘N Penny has James Gray in Feb. 24 and he’ll be at Picnic Feb. 25… Lake Country Grill has Andrew Walker playing Feb. 28

(Photos by Swartz – SUNonline/Orillia and Images Supplied) Main: Karen Hilfman Millson and Gordon Lightfoot at ST. Paul’s Centre February 2013

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