Letha MacLachlan, Q.C., retired in 2016 from a 35-year practice in regulatory, environmental, and aboriginal law, but remains very active as a member of a number of boards, including the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. She also finds time to practice the piano for a good hour a day, seven days a week. Her journey back to piano began when her path crossed with award-winning French classical pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. While in Calgary to serve as adjudicator for the Honens Piano Competition, Bavouzet practiced at the MacLachlan-Ridge house for several hours every day.
“With the help of Michael Lipnicki, we put a lot of energy into getting our piano back into shape — and I decided then that, given I had a perfectly working piano, it was time for me to start playing again,” Letha says. “Initially, my goal was to take the Level 6 Royal Conservatory of Music exam, but after my husband John passed away I’m not sure I’m still that ambitious. However, I have really progressed in my ability to play in the last couple of years. As there had been a 50-year gap in my piano practice, it took me a full year to make my fingers and brain musically nimble and connecting with each other again,” she says, laughing.
“Bavouzet said ‘you know, you’ll probably never reach the same level you were at when you quit playing and you’ll never be able to progress beyond that point if you’re lucky to reach it again,’ but I started taking piano lessons anyway. While I might not be able to play as fast as Jean would have liked, I am proud that I have progressed to level 7 and can play Beethoven’s Für Elise from memory.”
Letha and her late husband John Ridge started the MacLachlan Ridge Emerging Artist Program in 2011 after learning that only five to 10 per cent of young musicians reach the point where they can sustain themselves as professional performers — and for many musicians, the missing key to success was the right opportunity. They started the program, in partnership with the Calgary Philharmonic, to give talented young musicians the opportunity to perform with a professional orchestra and develop connections in the music world at a crucial point in their careers. The MacLachlan Ridge Emerging Artist Program has to date featured nine talented musicians performing in a total of 10 recitals.
Letha hosted the most recent Emerging Artist recital last week, virtually. The private event featured young pianist and composer Kevin Chen, who she has had the pleasure of hearing since he was very young. He had been scheduled to perform with the Orchestra at the Lunar New Year Celebration as well as at an in-person recital, but both events were cancelled due to the pandemic. Rather than postpone again, Letha and Kevin agreed to go forward with the solo event online — Chen performed works by Bach, Schumann, Ravel, Liszt, as well as one of his own compositions.
The MacLachlan Ridge Emerging Artist program has presented many young Canadian artists who now enjoy flourishing careers. Among them are Charles Richard Hamelin, Blake Pouliot, Isabella Perron, Pavel Kolesnikov, Sheng Cai, Jaeden Izik-Dzurko, and Andrea Tyniec, who was the first young musician to be featured in the program. Letha keeps in touch with many of the musicians and follows their progress with enthusiasm. Their careers have led them from performing on stages around the world to being nominated for a Juno Award. “I remember sitting in front of the TV watching Jeremy Dutcher perform at the 2019 Juno Awards. I had wanted to feature him in the Emerging Artist program,” she says. “He was accompanied by a violinist who had a distinctive haircut that I recognized right away. It was Blake Pouliot, one of our previous program artists! It was wonderful. I reached out to him right away to tell him how happy I was to see him on that stage.”
Letha and John were longtime supporters of the orchestra. They started as members of the Amadeus Patron Program, and Letha served on the Board for a number of years, including two as Chair of the Governance Committee and another two as Chair of the Board. After John’s recent passing, Letha, with her daughters Stephanie and Lauren by her side, renewed their family’s commitment to the MacLachlan Ridge Emerging Artist program.
The MacLachlan Ridge family (left to right): Stephanie and her fiance Owen Clark, Lauren, John, and Letha.
“Our family has always been musical,” Letha says. “John was a chorister when he was very young. My mother, Kathleen MacLachlan, grew up on a farm and had to ride her horse to and from her piano lessons. My grandmother paid for my mother’s lesson by selling the eggs from the chickens she raised. My parents always had season tickets to the Calgary Philharmonic, and my brother and I took piano lessons as children. Stephanie studied piano for many years from a young age and advanced further than I did; Lauren played the violin in a succession of children’s orchestras at Mount Royal Conservatory, culminating in the Calgary Youth Orchestra and then when she attended university, the University of Alberta Orchestra. I sat on the Calgary Youth Orchestra Board of Directors for a number of years and set up a scholarship there in my mother’s name. We raised our children surrounded by music and now both Stephanie and Lauren are very much involved with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra — attending concerts, as active members in the Patron Program, and serving on the Organizing Committee for the Cork and Canvas Gala event.”
Clearly, Letha and John’s family were born under an adventurous star — discoveries and new paths have been at the core of their experience for the last 40 years.
The couple’s meeting seems to have been written in the stars as well. “John was working with BBC in his early 20s and was sent to New York and then to Toronto on a short-term posting. But he fell in love with Canada and when the BBC asked him to come back to London, he said no!” Letha recalls. John moved into current affairs at the CBC and, a few years later, became the Executive Producer of a program called Focus North, the first weekly current affairs television program produced north of 60° that reflected the people and landscape of the Arctic. “I met him in Ft. MacPherson in 1982 but it took us five years to have our first serious date. His colleague Marie Wilson knew me, and she said to him ‘That’s the kind of woman you need!’ But we were both working and travelling all the time. I remember once I was unexpectedly on a connecting flight in the Winnipeg airport and ran into my accountant and he said, ‘Oh, I just saw John!’ We were in the same airport, but we didn’t see each other before travelling on to our next stop!” Letha says, laughing.
After John joined CBC management as Director of Television for CBC Northern Services, they moved to Newfoundland with a young Stephanie, and Lauren on the way. “It was a special place but if you weren’t born there, life could be a challenge,” Letha says. “My parents were not well, and we decided to move back to Calgary.”
And once in Calgary, new discoveries, ideas, and paths were built, surrounded by music and harmony for the past 35 years.
For more details, please visit our MacLachlan/Ridge Emerging Artist Program page.
Update: September 2021
Congratulations to Kevin Chen on winning the top prize in the Franz Liszt International Piano Competition. Kevin was the Calgary Phil’s 2020/2021 Emerging Artist in the MacLachlan/Ridge Program.
Watch our recent video celebrating Letha MacLachlan’s gift to the program here.