Summer Festivals: Small Treasures Await Discovery in Eastern Canada

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Landfillharmonic instruments of The Recycled Orchestra of Cateura, Paraguay
Landfill instruments of the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura, Paraguay coming to Stratford Music Festivalead
By Colin Eatock

There’s certainly no lack of summer music festivals in Eastern Canada. They’re big and small, urban and rural, wide-ranging or strictly classical in their programming.

So what to focus on? Perhaps Quebec’s Lanaudière  – the “Tanglewood of the North” – which hosts everything from intimate chamber concerts to major orchestral and operatic performances throughout the summer. Or maybe Ottawa’s two big summer festivals – Music and Beyond and the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival – which present over 150 summer concerts in Canada’s capital city. Much could be said about these major events. (You can read an article about this summer’s Lanaudière festival here.)

But no less worthy of attention are several festivals that aren’t so well known. Some are modest in size (but not quality), some are overshadowed by other local attractions, and some are in out-of-the-way places. Here are half a dozen festivals you may not know about.

Toronto Summer Music: July 16 – August 3

Gryphon Trio (John Beebe)
Gryphon Trio (John Beebe)

For decades, Toronto summers were a wasteland for classical music lovers. Several efforts were made to rectify this situation over the years, but it wasn’t until 2006 that something with staying-power arrived on the scene. It’s still not a big event – this summer’s Toronto Summer Music festival features just 15 concerts – but from the start, there’s been a quality-over-quantity ethos firmly in place.

This summer, artists include the Brentano and Pacifica string quartets, the Los Angeles Guitar Ensemble, the Gryphon Trio and pianist André Laplante. Performances take place at the University of Toronto and the Royal Conservatory of Music. And in keeping with Toronto Summer Music’s dual mandate for performance and teaching, there are also recitals by advanced students.

Stratford Summer Music: July 15 – August 25

Stratford, Ontario, is known internationally for its massive annual theatre festival. But for the last 12 years, Stratford Summer Music has been the town’s “other” festival, presenting a variety of musical events in churches, the town hall and other venues.

Stratford Summer Music isn’t exclusively classical in its programming, but this summer’s classical artists include the Vienna Boys’ Choir, Canadian Wunderkind pianist Jan Lisiecki, and the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay – a youth orchestra that plays on instruments made from trash.

Music Niagara: July 13 – August 11

Pianist André Laplante
Pianist André Laplante

Like Stratford Summer Music, Music Niagara lives cheek-by-jowl with a major theatre festival, Ontario’s Shaw Festival. But that hasn’t stopped Music Niagara from growing into a substantial festival, with 38 concerts this summer. And for Americans, the location couldn’t be more convenient: the U.S. is just across the river.

Look for the Vienna Piano Trio, the New Zealand String Quartet, and one of Canada’s best new chamber ensembles, the New Orford Quartet. Also featured are three fine Canadian pianists: Stewart Goodyear, André Laplante and Robert Silverman.

Festival de musique Montréal baroque: June 21 – 24

In a city bursting with festivals, the Montreal’s annual celebration of the baroque is easily overlooked. But it shouldn’t be – because it combines fine music with a fresh and imaginative approach to programming built around an ingenious theme. This year, the theme of the Festival de musique Montréal baroque is Nouveux Mondes/New Worlds, a musical look at how Europe and America transformed each other.

The centrepiece of this year’s festival is the multimedia presentation of Vivaldi’s opera Montezuma, performed by Ensemble Caprice and Montreal Opera’s Atelier lyrique. Other performers include Mexico’s ensemble La Fontegera, Spain’s Euskal Barrok Ensemble, and such local groups as Constantinople and the Montreal Recorder Ensemble. There’s even a “baroque parade” through the streets of Old Montreal.

Indian River Festival: June 16 – September 19

Indian River is a small village in Canada’s smallest province, Prince Edward Island. Yet, surprisingly, there are some prominent Canadian classical artists performing in the multi-genre Indian River Festival. Tenor Ben Heppner, soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian and the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra will be among the performers appearing in historic St. Mary’s Church this summer.

Domaine Forget: June 15 – August 25

Domaine Forget, Charlevoix, Quebec
Domaine Forget, Charlevoix, Quebec

Named for the politician Rodolphe Forget, the (mostly) classical Domaine Forget festival has been in operation since 1977. It’s located on North shore of the St. Lawrence River, about 100 miles northeast of Quebec City. The festival is set in a beautiful swath of parkland – with concerts taking place in the 600-seat Françoys-Bernier concert hall.

Quebec’s own artists hold pride of place at this festival. Featured performers this summer include I Musici de Montréal, the Orchestre symphonique de Québec, Quebec City’s Les Violons du Roy orchestra, and pianists Marc-André Hamelin and André Laplante. But pianist Menahem Pressler will also put in an appearance – as will the Pacifica Quartet and saxophonist Branford Marsalis.

Colin Eatock is a critic and composer who lives in Toronto. His latest book, Remembering Glenn Gould, was published by Penumbra Press in 2012.