2 Chamber Music Festivals Enrich Ottawa’s Summer

The Beaux Arts Trio (Antonio Meneses, Menahem Pressler, Daniel Hope) helped Ottawa's Chamberfest thrive.  (Photo by Marco Borggreve)
The Beaux Arts Trio (Antonio Meneses, Menahem Pressler, Daniel Hope) helped Ottawa’s Chamberfest thrive.
(Photo by Marco Borggreve)
By Richard Todd

OTTAWA – Every summer in Ottawa, there are two chamber music oriented festivals, Music and Beyond, which this year runs July 5-17, and Chamberfest, July 24-Aug. 7. Together, they make Canada’s capital city a major destination for chamber music in North America.

How did this outpouring of musical abundance come to be? Therein lies a tale.

Julian Armour founded Chamberfest and Music and Beyond. (Courvette Photography)
Julian Armour founded both Chamberfest and Music and Beyond.

Chamberfest (originally called the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival) was founded in 1994 by Ottawa cellist Julian Armour. He announced a series of 22 concerts taking place in just over a week. Chamber music concerts! Most people thought he was nuts, this writer included. Summertime in Ottawa had become a musical void since Canada’s National Arts Centre had abandoned its summer programming about 10 years earlier, ostensibly because there was little public interest.

But Armour had a winning formula. For $25, people could buy a pass that would entitle them to attend any and all but one of 22 concerts. Don’t know if you like chamber music? Not sure what it is? For the almost nominal cost of a pass, you had a chance to find out. And from the very beginning, people came by the hundreds – typically queuing up for a block or more to sit in the sweltering heat of an un-air-conditioned church to hear a spectrum of performers and repertoire.

The following year, it was 48 concerts, and before long there were around 100 of them, given in a two-week period. Performers included local and regional artists, as well as major international artists like the Emerson String Quartet and the Beaux Arts Trio. One especially memorable year saw the Borodin String Quartet perform the complete cycle of Shostakovich’s string quartets. Sometime around 2000, Chamberfest became the largest festival of its kind in the world.

Armour eventually began programming as many as five simultaneous concerts, overreaching his ability to fill the various churches and other venues where they took place. Rumors of serious financial difficulties were rife when suddenly, in March 2007, Armour announced his resignation as artistic director. The reason was never made public, but it appears that he and the board of directors were unable to agree on key financial matters.

Personable and popular, Armour enjoyed a degree of support from long-time patrons and volunteers, many of whom felt that the festival he founded couldn’t survive without him. Others questioned the timing of his resignation, wondering why he didn’t make his exit effective after the 2007 season.

 Cellist RomanBorys, of the Gryphon Trio, is current artistic director of Chamberfest.
Cellist Roman Borys, of the Gryphon Trio, now heads Chamberfest.

In any event, Chamberfest survived. The following year, Roman Borys, cellist of the Toronto-based Gryphon Trio, was appointed artistic director. Then, following a bequest from the late music critic Jacob Siskind, the organization achieved a financial stability it still enjoys. Simultaneous concerts were phased out and a series of innovative cabaret-style events was introduced for the end of each evening. Attendance remained high; a storm had passed.

But another storm soon loomed. In the spring of 2010 Armour announced a new Ottawa-based festival, to be called Music and Beyond. It, too, was largely centered on chamber music, but it also included such varia as highbrow circus acts and choral and orchestral events.

What was Armour thinking? People wondered that and more. Was he trying to compete? Subvert? Could Ottawa support two chamber music festivals?

It turned out that the city could. Whatever his motivation, Armour had once again enriched Ottawa’s musical life, and in no small way. The pattern is now well established: two consecutive festivals of about two weeks each, separated by a week’s intermission.

Branford Marsalis opened this year's Music and Beyond. (Ronald Martinez: Getty Images)
Branford Marsalis opened Music and Beyond 2014. (Ronald Martinez)

Music and Beyond began July 5 with a major concert featuring saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who performed concertos by Glazunov and Vaughan Williams and also jazz numbers with his ensemble. The New Orford and Auryn string quartets and the Vienna Piano Trio will be featured, as will the Beijing Acrobatic and Magic Troupe. Another special event will be “Music and Architecture,” an 80th birthday tribute to Douglas Cardinal, the architect of the Canadian Museum of History.

Chamberfest begins July 24 with a concert by the Brentano String Quartet, followed the same evening by a program called “From Weimar to Vaudeville,” featuring music by Richard Strauss and Fats Waller, among others. The Cecilia, Lafayette, Dover, Brodsky, and Miró quartets will perform, along with various chamber ensembles.

The festival will conclude with a two-day “Bach Summit,” culminating in a performance of the six Brandenburg Concertos by Ensemble Caprice.

For ticket information, visit  Music and Beyond and Chamberfest.

Richard Todd has been writing music criticism since 1978 for a variety of publications. Since 1993, he has been the principal music critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and writes for other publications from time to time, including Opera Canada and Classical Music Sentinel.