By Robert Markow
Nestled in picturesque, rural Quebec, less than an hour’s drive from Montreal, is the small city of Joliette, home to Canada’s largest classical summer music festival. The Lanaudière Festival (Le Festival de Lanaudière, to give it its current official name in this predominantly francophone province) has grown over the years from a mere three concerts by the Montreal Symphony in 1977 to more than 30 events annually, packed into a four-to-five week period throughout July and early August.
Lanaudière is the name of one of the seventeen administrative regions of Quebec, and the region where the Festival’s founder, Father Fernand Lindsay, spent most of his life. The dream of this cleric and organist was to create a festival in Quebec modeled on the great festivals he had experienced in Europe. “Music has always been tremendously important in my personal life,” he often remarked. “My only wish has been to transmit it to everyone, especially to those who live outside the big cities.” Father Lindsay’s guiding spirit still hovers over the Festival four years after his death at the age of eighty. The amphitheater in Joliette, where many of the Festival events take place, now bears his name.
The Lanaudière Festival is known as “The Tanglewood of the North” for more reasons than one: its beautiful rustic setting; a large, fan-shaped shed open at the sides; the expansive green lawn where thousands can bring chairs, blankets and picnics to enjoy the music on warm summer evenings in the lingering twilight; and of course the eclectic musical offerings.
But the Fernand Lindsay Amphitheater has something even Tanglewood lacks: its grassy area is set into a natural bowl-shaped formation that acts as an acoustic enhancement, thus affording excellent sound transmission from the stage to the most distant listener. While the amphitheater is the focal point of the festival, many performances – the more intimate recitals and chamber music concerts – take place in a dozen or so historic churches throughout the Lanaudière region.
Over the years, the Festival has been host to luminaries that include the likes of Itzhak Perlman, Mstislav Rostropovich, Mitsuko Uchida, Leon Fleisher, Alicia de Larrocha, Anton Kuerti, Alexander Lagoya, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Marilyn Horne, Frederica von Stade, Cecilia Bartoli and Ben Heppner. Visiting orchestras have included the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and the Australian Youth Orchestra. Then there have been one-of-a-kind events like a performance of Holst’s Planets with astronaut Marc Garneau as narrator, a “monster concert” with six pianists, and a concert version of Gounod’s Faust with Father Lindsay at the organ in the church scene. Non-classical events have included the Keith Jarrett Trio, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Céline Dion and Oscar Peterson.
Programming this summer, the festival’s 36th season, offers 28 concerts plus four evenings of open-air cinema (en français seulement). The Verdi bicentenary will be observed in unusual fashion: on Aug. 3, a grand Verdi Gala is scheduled, with over three hours of music drawn from a dozen operas. The Wagner bicentenary will be celebrated on Aug. 11 with a complete concert version of Lohengrin featuring an international cast to include Deborah Voigt in her first portrayal of Ortrud and Yannick Nézet-Séguin on the podium. Both composers are featured in a July 15 program with pianist Katherine Chi, who plays transcriptions by Thalberg, Liszt, von Bülow, and Cziffra of passages from Verdi and Wagner operas.
Other notable events include the start of a complete Mozart sonata cycle (to be completed in 2014) played on the fortepiano by Kristian Bezuidenhout (July 16 and 18); a principally Poulenc choral program by Les Éléments on July 31; a recital by that inimitable Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin, whose program typically includes something for even the most jaded of concertgoers, Medtner’s monumental Night Wind Sonata (July 26); and two concerts by the Montreal Symphony and Kent Nagano on Aug. 9 (Brahms’ Double Concerto and Beethoven’s Eroica) and August 10 (Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 and Mahler’s First).
Visitors will have the opportunity to hear no fewer than seven of the province’s orchestras this summer. In addition to the Montreal Symphony, the Festival will play host to Montreal’s second orchestra, the Orchestre Métropolitain led by Mathieu Lussier on July 14 in a program celebrating France’s national holiday, Bastille Day; and by Yannick Nézet-Séguin in Lohengrin on August 11. (The Orchestre Métropolitain was the launch pad to international stardom for “Yannick,” and as its continuing artistic director he retains a deep sense of loyalty to it.)
Also from Montreal comes the string orchestra I Musici de Montréal on July 19 accompanying the Fernand Lindsay Choir. The Quebec Symphony, one of North America’s oldest (founded in 1902), is heard on Aug. 2 in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony in a pastoral setting, and renowned conductor Bernard Labadie brings his string band Les Violons du Roy, also from Quebec City, on July 27. Two more orchestras, the ad hoc Festival Orchestra (July 13 and 20, Aug. 3) and the international student orchestra from nearby Orford Academy (Aug. 4) complete the orchestral lineup.
The festival’s current artistic administrator, Alex Benjamin, continues to pursue Father Lindsay’s vision. “The festival is designed to attract every segment of the potential classical music audience and beyond,” says Benjamin. “We offer everything from full symphony orchestras to solo recitals, and from serious classical to world music and jazz. The audience is predominantly local, but our roster of prestigious artists and imaginative programming bring visitors from all over.”
One of the special attractions that keep patrons – and artists – returning year after year is the exceptionally high level of hospitality offered by the festival. The atmosphere is relaxed, the spirit is welcoming. Easy access from downtown Montreal to the Amphitheater is provided by a special shuttle bus service. Alternately, visitors may opt for lodging at pretty inns and hotels in and around Joliette, where fine restaurants featuring local cuisine have also opened for business. You’ve already visited the Tanglewood of the South? Maybe it’s time to head to Quebec for the Tanglewood of the North.
For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call (450) 759-4343 or (800) 561-4343.
Formerly a horn player in the Montreal Symphony, Robert Markow now writes program notes for that orchestra and for many others in Canada, the U.S. and Asia. He writes regularly for such classical music journals as American Record Guide, Fanfare, Symphony, Strings, The Strad, Opera, Opera News and Opera Canada.