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Laura Anderson,
North Shore News

Ever wonder how performing arts programs – concerts, opera, theatre, dance – make it onto our radios and televisions? Someone has to say ‘no, or yes’. For 20 years at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, possibly the golden years of the mother network, that person was Robert Sunter.

West Vancouver's Robert Sunter played a major role in Canada's arts and cultural fabric, working as both a reporter and performing arts programmer over the course of his impressive career.  NEWS photo, Mike Wakefield

West Vancouver’s Robert Sunter played a major role in Canada’s arts and culture over the course of his impressive career. NEWS photo, Mike Wakefield 

Robert started in 1976 in Toronto as head of radio music and moved on to helm television arts and music. In 1987, he returned to British Columbia as director of radio and retired in 1996 as program director of CBC Stereo.

As a boy in Liverpool, England, Robert played piano and sang in his school choir – when he wasn’t practicing for hours on end, developing a left foot that was lethal on the football pitch, perfecting his snooker skills or performing magic as the Great Suntini.

At the after-hours parties upstairs from the family pub, young Robert was fascinated by the music hall tunes belted out on the piano by neighbour George Stevenson. “That’s just fun,” Uncle George told him and then from those ivory keys his enormous hands drew music Robert had never heard before, Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp minor.

Piano lessons were among Robert’s presents on his 10th birthday, November 20, 1941. After years of practice, a recording of Artur Rubenstein’s interpretation of the Prelude convinced Robert he would never attain the maestro’s artistry and he stopped the lessons. Robert did continue to attend concerts and opera, through school and during his National Service, consolidating his passion for the performing arts.

When his parents emigrated to Ontario, Robert went with them. A journalism course led to a job at the Peterborough Examiner newspaper under editor Robertson Davies. “I measured my progress as a journalist by the editing Davies did on my copy,” says Robert.

Lured west in 1965 to join the short-lived Vancouver Times, Robert found a spot at the Vancouver Sun as a deskman. Between editing copy and writing headlines, Robert and music critic William Littler talked about the concerts they attended. In 1966, when Littler went to the Toronto Star, publisher Irwin Swangard named Robert as performing arts critic.

When Robert left the paper in 1968, his secretary presented him with a collection of his reviews. The record of artists and performances preserved in these scrapbooks – Fonteyn and Nureyev, Stravinsky, the Bolshoi Ballet as well as from the local cultural community – represent a high water mark of the performing arts in Vancouver.

In the memoir Robert is writing, he describes a post-recital conversation with Artur Rubenstein. Robert confessed his experience with Rubenstein’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude. “Did it inspire you?” inquired the maestro. “Yes, it inspired me to stop playing the piano.” The response came after what seemed an eternity, “You don’t look or sound that stupid.” The conversation improved from there.

Robert, recruited as music critic for the Toronto Star, also served with the Ontario Arts Council and various music organizations. In 1976, while walking past the CBC building in Toronto, Robert was approached by Bill Armstrong, president of the corporation. “You’re Robert Sunter,” he said. “Guilty as charged,” replied Robert. “How would you like to be head of music for CBC Radio?”

The answer was yes, until 1984, when he was named head of television arts and music, responsible for all performing arts programming on national television. It was Robert’s most rewarding period at CBC. He considers the documentary Whalesong, a collaboration of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, the Vancouver Bach Choir, opera singers Judith Forst and Mark Pedrotti, and the songs of three orcas, Hyak, Finna and Bjossa, to be the most memorable among a host of memorable productions.

Though Robert retired in 1996, the extent of his contribution to the CBC as it was, and to performing arts in Canada, is remembered. Today, Robert plays tennis and volunteers as a cultural coach for immigrants at John Braithwaite Community Centre in North Vancouver.

There is a piano in the West Vancouver home he shares with his wife, Cynthia, but Robert does not play. He prefers to work on his memoirs, purely for his own pleasure and for the mental stimulation it provides, not for publication. For the benefit of our country’s cultural heritage, perhaps Robert can be persuaded to change his mind.