The Sunday Magazine

How music helps restore dignity at Canada's most notorious prison

A concert at Millhaven Institution provides respite and reflection for the inmates, and a reminder of their dignity and humanity.
A concert at Millhaven Institution provides respite and reflection for the inmates, and a reminder of their dignity and humanity. (Laura Prosser/CSC)

In mid-October, in a maximum security prison outside Kingston, Ont., three classical musicians prepared to give a very unusual concert. 

Jonathan Crow is a violinist and concertmaster of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Joseph Johnson is the orchestra's principal cellist. Lukas Geniušas is an acclaimed concert pianist from Russia.

This world-class trio has never performed together outside of prison. They were brought to Millhaven Maximum Security Institution by a charitable organization called Looking at the Stars, which brings classical music to people in prisons and long-term care facilities. 

This is my way of giving back service to a community that one day will be free.- Artist S. Gordon Harwood

"It's a great opportunity to just not be here. I mean, it transcends our current circumstances," said Jeff, one of the inmates in the audience. "It's dignifying, right? You lose a lot of dignity in a place like this, and this is a great way to retain it a little bit, to be treated like a human being."

The program is the brainchild of Dmitri Kanovich, an entrepreneur and classical music lover who came to Canada as a refugee in 1983. Over the last four years, he has made more than 50 visits to prisons in Canada. 

"It brings hope, to begin with. It brings confidence. I think it warms their hearts," he told The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright.

The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright speaks with Dmitri Kanovich, the founder of Looking at the Stars. (Laura Prosser/CSC)

Kanovich said that his interactions with inmates have been an education for him.

"I was not aware of what leads them to crime. I was not aware of the fact that [the majority of them] were born in families which were the families of alcoholics, drug addicts," he said. 

"I do believe that we are as a society are responsible, to a great degree, for creating poverty."

He also said he could "absolutely" imagine himself on the other side of the prison walls.

"I was on the threshold of committing crimes, because I was abused, I was harassed, I was hurt badly. I never crossed that threshold ... but I empathize with them," he said. 

More than just a form of escape

Over the course of the afternoon, the trio performed music from Ravel, Schubert, Astor Piazolla, Beethoven, Handel and Johan Halvorsen. 

Jason, one of the inmates, was struck by how the musicians swayed as they performed. 

"It's a fascinating, because I've never really listened to classical music and I've been to dozens of concerts, mostly rock concerts. I found with this, a lot of their body language and their feeling goes into the music," he told Enright after the concert. 

"You can actually hear his emotion through his music. So for me, it was just a completely different experience. It opened me up to another world, because I love music."

Jeff, the inmate who said listening to music helps lift him beyond his circumstances, said music is more than just a form of escape. 

"It can force you to be very honest with yourself. Music opens up your heart, and you're very honest in that state," he said. 

As the trio played, artist S. Gordon Harwood worked on a painting inspired by their music. "It's an emotional experience, and I intentionally choose colors that bring joy and inspiration, without the dark colors of blue and black and gray," he said. 

As a classical music concert goes on at Millhaven prison, artist S. Gordon Harwood works on a painting inspired by their music. (Laura Prosser/CSC)

After the concert, he donated the piece to the prison, for their community room.  

"This is my way of giving back service to a community that one day will be free." 

Challenging preconceived notions

Crow, the violinist, said he and the other musicians are "creatures of habit" who are used to playing in a very different environment. 

"When we play at Roy Thomson Hall, we know exactly what time the concert is going to start. We know where our dressing rooms are. We know when it's going to end. Everything is really controlled. This is a totally different situation. You never quite know what's going to happen," he said. 

"It's not about our controls, not about our concerts, so much as doing it for somebody else."

Why shouldn't the inmates in here also be able to play the violin and be able to play the piano extremely well?- Violinist Jonathan Crow

The inmates at Looking at the Stars concerts are one of the most rewarding audiences to perform for, said cellist Johnson. 

"Their curiosity and their open honesty and affection for what they've just witnessed needs to come out and they need to tell us, and I love that," he said. "It's a little bit different than going to a normal concert and speaking to an audience member that may come to 20 concerts a year."

For some prisoners, the concerts bring back memories of their lives before Millhaven. 

"One of them said, 'Oh yeah, I used to play violin as a kid.' And after the concert, one of the inmates just got up on the piano and started jamming and was playing really well," said Crow. 

"That shouldn't have been shocking to me. But it still was surprising, which goes to my preconceived notions about the people that are in here, right? Why shouldn't the inmates in here also be able to play the violin and be able to play the piano extremely well?"

Click 'listen' above to hear The Sunday Edition's special program on the Millhaven concert. 


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