DATE BOOK — There’s an old joke that “summer” in Canada is the one day of the year when Canadians play baseball. But the Canadian summer (which lasts a little longer than just one day) is also a time to enjoy the classical music festivals scattered across the country, many of them in historic venues or scenic locations.
Chamber music is the bread-and-butter of most Canadian summer festivals, although orchestral concerts and even opera can be found in a few places. Repertoire runs the gamut from early music through to contemporary, and Canadian musicians are always well represented.
Here’s a selection of Canadian festivals known for high-quality artistry and polished presentation. If you’re planning to attend any of them, Americans will benefit from the low Canadian dollar, currently worth about 75 cents U.S. Don’t forget that Americans also need a valid passport to cross the border.
St-Irenée, Quebec: International fest in historic beauty of Domaine Forget
June 18-Aug. 21: Full details
Overlooking the mighty St. Lawrence River, Domaine Forget (pronounced “For-zhay”) is located on a 150-acre park in St-Irenée, a two-hour drive northeast of Quebec City. Here, the International Music Festival offers about three dozen concerts, mostly on weekends, spread out over the summer months.
This summer’s featured artists include the Quebec Symphony Orchestra (July 23), the chamber orchestras I Musici de Montréal (August 6) and Les Violons du Roy (August 21), guitarist Pepe Romero (July 9) and pianists Marc-André Hamelin (August 13) and Jan Lisiecki (July 16) – all performing in the 600-seat Françoys-Bernier Hall. There’s also a Sunday brunch concert series on the terrace of Joseph-Rouleau Pavillion, as well as masterclasses and a sculpture garden.
On-site accommodation is available at Les Studios du Domaine. And in the vicinity, there are plenty of hotels, inns, B&Bs, and restaurants. Domaine Forget is located in the Charlevoix region of Quebec, rich in French-Canadian history and culture. But don’t worry if your French is a little rusty: people in Quebec’s hospitality industry usually speak some English.
Ottawa, Ontario: In Canada’s musical heartland, concerts go summer long
July 4-17: Music & Beyond – Full details
July 21-Aug. 3: Ottawa Chamberfest – Full details
Ottawa isn’t just the national capital of Canada, it’s also a musical capital. With two major classical music festivals, summertime in Ottawa offers more concerts than you can shake a stick at.
Music & Beyond is first out of the gate, with an eclectic mix of programming. The Vienna Piano Trio plays three programs (July 7, 8, and 9). The vocal ensemble Chanticleer also makes an appearance (July 16). And the province of Quebec is well represented this summer, with the Montreal-based vocal ensemble Studio de musique ancienne (July 7), Les Violons du Roy (July 9) and I Musici de Montréal (July 12)
For many years, the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival – or “Chamberfest,” as it’s come to be called – was billed as the largest such event in the world. It’s an intense festival, with multiple concerts daily, spread over a two-week period, in churches and concert halls all over Ottawa.
Full details of this summer’s Chamberfest have yet to be announced. But, as in past years, Canadians will be well represented in solo recitals and small ensembles. Highlights for the 2016 event include Haitian-born Canadian soprano Marie-Josée Lord’s festival-opening production called Femmes, embodying the spirits of Delilah, Musetta, even Piaf (July 21); the Gryphon Piano Trio with baritone Russell Braun (July 22); a Chopin recital by pianist Janina Fialkowska (July 29); and Bach’s Mass in B Minor, in a small-scale performance by Arion Baroque Orchestra (August 3).
In addition to all these concerts, there’s more to recommend Ottawa as a cultural destination. Museums are plentiful – including the National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian Museum of History. Canada’s Parliament Buildings are open daily for tours – and every morning on Parliament Hill there’s a British-style “Changing of the Guard.”
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario: Music Niagara in Shaw Fest, wine region
July 16-Aug. 19: Full details
Located on the Canadian side of the Niagara River, Music Niagara is an easy destination for anyone in the Niagara Falls area. This festival is located in the picture-postcard town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, well known to theater-lovers as the home of the Shaw Festival, where George Bernard Shaw’s plays are staged.
Programming isn’t exclusively classical (there’s also some jazz, country, and world music) – but there’s a handful of classical artists, most of them Canadian. Look for the Penderecki String Quartet (July 18), the piano duo of Anagnoson & Kinton (July 24), pianist Janina Fialkowska (August 2), and a recital by the rising soprano Ambur Braid (August 6).
And in between concerts and plays, why not take a tour of the region’s wineries? Yes, Canada produces wine – and even wins international awards for it.
Vancouver, B.C.: Early Music Vancouver goes all out for J.S. Bach
August 2-12: Full details
Every summer, the city of Vancouver is host to an international gathering of historically informed performers. This year’s event focuses on the music of J.S. Bach – and just about every concert features works by the Leipzig Kapellmeister.
The festival opens with French-American jazz pianist and composer Dan Tepfer playing his own unique version of the Goldberg Variations (August 2). Other artists include harpsichordist Davitt Moroney (August 3), Arion Baroque Orchestra (August 5), cellist Beiliang Zhu (August 11), and the Pacific Baroque Orchestra (August 12). All concerts take place either in Vancouver’s Gothic Revival Christ Church Anglican (Episcopal) Cathedral or at the modern Chan Centre for the Performing Arts at the University of British Columbia.
Vancouver is a vibrant city, flanked on one side by mountains and on the other by the ocean. Its many attractions include the Vancouver Art Gallery and UBC’s Museum of Anthropology, with its stunning collection of West Coast Native totem poles. If you’d care to step outdoors, Stanley Park offers a wilderness experience right in the city – a vast rainforest circled by the Seawall Trail.
Banff, Alberta: Young string quartets compete at the Banff International
Aug. 29 – Sept. 5: Full details
For outdoor scenery, Banff, Alberta, can’t be beat. Located within a large national park, the town is surrounded by the spectacular Canadian Rockies. Not surprisingly, it’s a popular destination for outdoor sports, year round.
The town is also home to the triennial Banff International String Quartet Competition. Strictly speaking, the BISQC isn’t a music festival; like most music competitions, its core purpose is to compare, judge, and reward upcoming musicians through prizes awarded by a jury of experts. But the competition doesn’t just attract some of the best young quartets in the world. It has also become a destination for chamber-music enthusiasts. Indeed, the audience is an intrinsic aspect of the BISQC.
There aren’t many string quartet competitions in the world, and the BISQC is one of the most prominent, with a good track record of picking young ensembles that go on to impressive careers. Since 1983, winners have included the Miró Quartet, the St. Lawrence Quartet, and the Jupiter Quartet. At the last BISQC, in 2013, the Dover Quartet became the first ensemble to make a clean sweep of the prizes. This year’s competing quartettistes come from the USA, the UK, Japan, Israel, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, and Canada.
The 2016 competition takes place from August 29 to September 5, and attendees can purchase a “passport” for the full week or just for the final weekend. Packages include tickets to all events – lectures, concerts, and competition rounds – along with meals and accommodation at the Banff Centre (in a respectable on-campus hotel facility, atop Tunnel Mountain). There’s also a final weekend accommodation package and tickets for individual events.
Colin Eatock is a Toronto-based composer and critic. He is the author of two books: Mendelssohn and Victorian England and Remembering Glenn Gould. He also teaches at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music.