John Lacey on the Jack Singer stage
John Lacey | Photo: Courtesy of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra

John Lacey

A lifelong love of music, stoked by the love of his life, led to a philanthropic spark

Stephen Hunt

When he was a student at Royal School of Mines at Imperial College London in the early 1950s, John Lacey’s college was close to the Albert Hall, the Carnegie Hall of London at that time. He studied next door to the Royal School of Music, whose musicians rehearsed continuously while he was studying geology and engineering.

Rather than disrupting his ability to concentrate, he learned how he could listen to the students rehearse and study at the same time.

He didn’t know it at the time, but it was a sign of the dual path his life was about to follow: A successful career in the Alberta and international oil patch, running his own business, coupled with a lifelong love of music stoked by the love of his life, his wife Naomi.

“She was a knockout, she had an amazing aura, a party just took off when she arrived even strangers would stop to talk to her, a truly amazing person,” he says.

On their first date, John proposed.

A year later, they were married.

In 1956, Naomi moved with John to Alberta, where after 15 years with a major company he started up an international engineering and advisory business.

He would often be working up at Northern Alberta. Naomi, who played piano, painted, and wrote, would accompany him, living and sleeping in the car with him while he undertook work at the well site.

“She was an amazing woman,” he says. “She arrived here from a very cultured background in Britain, to a very different environment here!”

The Laceys began making regular pilgrimages to the Jubilee Auditorium to listen to the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra—where he discovered the acoustics in the Jubilee didn’t quite match those at the Albert Hall.

“The sound was terrible,” he says. “It was dreadful! There were areas inside the Jubilee, where you couldn’t hear [anything] at all! And others where it was distorted.”

For years, the Laceys supported the CPO in a number of ways, but in 2007, after helping rescue the organization from bankruptcy and restoring it to financial stability, John and Naomi decided to up the ante.

“Nine years ago, my wife and I sat down with the orchestra and said ‘Look, we’re willing to put a big sum into the orchestra,’” he explains. “We’re going to donate $100,000 a year, but it is to go into a program to bring outstanding artists from around the world to perform with the CPO.”

In 2008, the CPO launched the Naomi and John Lacey Virtuoso Programme.

That list of artists the Laceys program has sponsored include people like pianists Arnaldo Cohen, Angela Cheng, and Emanuel Ax, violinist Joshua Bell, Honens Laureate Luca Buratto, trumpet player Branford Marsalis, cellist Lawrence Letter—and in November 2017, Yo Yo Ma.

For all the bold faced names his program has sponsored, John’s favourite concert featured a less well-known name.

“Of all the concerts we’ve had, the one that sticks in my mind was pianist Jeffrey Biegel, who played a piece called Prometheus,” he says. “I got totally carried away by the music and his performance. This may not have happened to other people—music is different to everybody who listens—but it made a huge impression on me.

“I want a change from the three B’s,” he adds. “I don’t want to hear just Beethoven, Brahms or Bach, there are so many wonderful—and challenging—composers out there that we need to hear and enjoy.”

The Virtuoso Programme also includes an educational component, with many guest artists teaching master classes to students at the Mount Royal University Conservatory, where John is Chair of the Advisory Committee.

Additionally, John has arranged for 10 free tickets to every Virtuoso performance to students at the Conservatory.

“I want to encourage the students to come,” he says.

Now in its 10th year, John is looking to fine-tune and expand the scope of the program, in innovative ways.

He’s also interested in facilitating relationships with music students in Beijing, hoping to increase the growing relationship between Calgary’s music community and China’s.

John not only loves music. He loves connecting with the people who make it.

“Musicians truly are the nicest people,” John says. “I love sitting with them. It’s absolutely marvellous. I try to entertain some of them, after the concerts.

“Sometimes there’s nobody else to come along,” he continues, “and I will go over to the Palliser with them to have a beer and we will spend hours solving the problems of the world and music.”

In addition to the CPO, John keeps in regular touch with plenty of creative lives, particularly those of the millennial generation.

“I’m not sure if it changed with the computer or changed with the iPhone,” he says, “but it’s a different world now—and what people expect and want are quite different from other generations.”

He talks about how some millennials he’s spoken to prefer to have the art come to them, as opposed to going to an art gallery or a formal concert. He’s interested in how we can adapt arts presentation to fit our current lifestyles.

One idea he has is to start another orchestra—not to compete with the CPO but to play in the summer—something outdoors so people could enjoy music on a beautiful, precious summer night in Calgary.

John is also a board member of Contemporary Calgary, which is searching for a place to call home after its initial proposed revitalization of the old planetarium fell through—but, in John’s view, the thing to do is find ways to get art to places where people go.

“Instead of bringing people to the art or people to the music,” he says, “maybe it’s time we started bringing music or art to the people. I would like to see far more involvement at locations where a lot of people are all the time. Like maybe a pop-up gallery at Chinook Centre Mall.

“Why not?” he asks. “Let’s get art to the people.”

After 60 years of being fully engaged with the arts in Calgary, John—who lost his life partner last year, when Naomi passed away—speaks like a man who’s just getting started.

“The other thing I’ve noticed,” he says, “is that the older you get, the more creative you get.

“You don’t lose your creativity, you can actually gain in creativity.”

About The Storytelling Project

On November 16, 2015, Calgary Arts Development hosted a working session with approximately 30 creative Calgarians from various walks of life. Many of the small working groups voiced the need to gather and share more stories of people living creative lives.

That need has turned into The Storytelling Project.

The Storytelling Project raises awareness about Calgarians who, by living creative lives, are making Calgary a better city, effecting positive change and enriching others’ lives.

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