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Organist featured in national commercial

Irene Besse a Calgary fixture who got her start in St. Albert

By: By Berkley Lamb

  |  Posted: Saturday, May 24, 2014 06:00 am

IRENE BESSE – Born and raised in St. Albert, Irene Besse made a name for herself as a performer and piano store owner in Calgary. She can be seen in the most recent Maxwell House commercial that's airing on CBC's Hockey Night In Canada during the NHL playoffs.
IRENE BESSE – Born and raised in St. Albert, Irene Besse made a name for herself as a performer and piano store owner in Calgary. She can be seen in the most recent Maxwell House commercial that's airing on CBC's Hockey Night In Canada during the NHL playoffs.
NEW HOME LIVING/Supplied photo

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If you've been tuning into the NHL hockey playoffs on CBC this spring, you've likely seen Maxwell House Coffee's latest commercial featuring supporting cast members of the hockey world: a Zamboni driver, a referee and an organ player.

If you watch closely, you'll notice that the organist playing in the empty arena is listed as Irene Besse of St. Albert. The wrinkle is, the arena isn't in St. Albert and Besse doesn't live here.

So who is Irene Besse and what is her connection to St. Albert?

It turns out that Besse is a well known Calgary-based musician and business person. When she was first recruited for the commercial she told producers that she was born and raised in St. Albert (which she was), so that's the location that appears on screen.

The accidental career

Besse got started in music when she was six and her mother put her in piano lessons, paying $1 per session, a significant expense at the time.

Besse would eventually specialize in the organ, first inspired to play the instrument while watching a nun play it at the family's church in St. Albert.

“I was just amazed that she could find the pedals with a long skirt on and without looking,” recalls Besse. “All I remember from my infanthood was sitting on that floor and watching the nun play the organ … that's where my love of music started.”

Besse became very passionate about playing the organ rather than the piano, so much so that her parents finally saved enough money to buy her one.

“I didn't realize the sacrifice they made for me … it's a very beautiful and emotional story for me,” Besse says.

Besse moved to Calgary when she was 23 and became well known in that city's music scene. She was the organ player for the Calgary Flames and the Calgary Stampeders and was the first live organ player to perform during the Olympics, when Calgary hosted the Winter Games in 1988.

“I did a lot of firsts,” she says.

Besse went on to be featured twice in Canadian Music Trade magazine and participated in several television appearances and concert series.

Eventually she branched out from performing and opened her own business: Irene's Keyboards.

The joint venture eventually ended up with Besse as the sole owner, as her two business partners withdrew due to doubts about the company's potential for success.

“I was on my own … I knew it was going to work though,” Besse says.

The store became a prominent fixture in the Calgary music scene. Besse retired in 2012. The business lives on through her daughter and son-in-law under the name Michael Lipnicki Fine Pianos.

Besse's recent return to performing on television happened to her unknowingly. She thought she was being interviewed for a profile story and didn't realize it was a tryout for a national commercial campaign.

After a third time meeting with the agency producing the commercial, Besse was chosen from about six other candidates. This led to a three-day trip to Montreal to film the commercial that's now being aired nationally.

This most recent television stint has brought her a new wave of recognition. During a garage sale at Besse's home, a fan bought several framed photos of her, and ask for them to be signed.

“That happens all the time,” Besse says.

Like the commercial, Besse's music career is something that just happened.

“It just evolved into this career; it was nothing I planned,” she said. “And it's been quite a career.”


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