Thursday, July 13, 2017

A tale of two Ontario music festivals

It's July and for many that means the summer music festival season is in full swing in Ontario.  We are lucky in these parts to have so many great music festivals to choose from, most less than a day's drive away for a quick summertime getaway.

Whether you choose Parry Sound, Ottawa, Hamilton or Stratford, for example, you are guaranteed some great classical and jazz music for several weeks at a stretch.  I have had the pleasure of visiting several of the summer music festivals in the province over the years, but two of my favourites are not far away and both start their music-making this very weekend.

Right in our own backyards, Music Niagara has quietly build a solid reputation as the go-to music destination in Niagara during July and August.  Based almost entirely in the old town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Music Niagara hosts a five-week festival ranging from classical to choral, jazz to even some country from now to August 13th.

The Opening Gala concert tomorrow evening at St. Mark's Anglican Church is billed as a Musical Kaleidoscope, starting with an opening reception at 6:30 and the concert at 7:30 pm.  Among the artists performing tomorrow evening will be Music Niagara Performance Academy graduate violinist Emma Meinrenken and the Canadian Chamber Academy Orchestra performing the ever-popular Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in D Minor.  Also on the programme is the world premiere of Music Niagara's Composer-in-Residence Barbara Croall's new work for violin, pipigwan, bozoq, voice and string quartet, entitled "Bimaawadaaso".

The two unusual-sounding and perhaps unheard-of instruments in that performance are of course the pipigwan, an Anishinaabe cedar flute, and the bozoq, a Syrian national instrument.  Canadian newcomers Esmaeel Sharafadin is featured on the bozoq and Rahaf Alakbani is the featured vocalist.

Performances continue almost daily throughout the Festival with performances by artists as diverse as  The Thorold Reed Band, clarinet virtuoso James Campbell, the Gould String Quartet, contrabassist Joel Quarrington and pianist Andre Laplante, among others.

On Sunday, August 6th a special Confederation Celebration to mark our country's Sesquicentennial will feature music from the Founding Fathers along with Canada's own Healey Willan.  Performers are Jonathan Crow and Philip Chiu.

The Closing Gala on August 13th also features an all-Canadian celebration with a concert entitled All Canadian Flavours featuring crowd favourites Quartetto Gelato.  The opening act will feature Quartetto Gelato accordionist Alexander Sebastian with the Gould String Quartet presenting the world premiere of a work by Canadian composer Dmitriy Varelas and his father Anatolyi Varelas entitled Taste of Freedom from String Quartet and Accordion.  The new world celebrates the 225th anniversary of the first Parliament of Upper Canada and first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, who helped to abolish slavery in Canada in 1793.

There is plenty more to enjoy as Artistic Director Atis Bankas pulls out all the stops to make Music Niagara's 19th season an extra-special affair to mark our country's 150th anniversary as a nation.  The quality of the music-making is top-notch and the programmes are as varied as you could possibly wish for.

Sound intriguing?  Find out more by going online to or by phone at 905-468-2172.

Meantime a short drive away will take you to another lovely small Ontario town with a big musical profile for many years, Elora just north-west of Guelph.  The Elora Festival has been around exactly twice as long as Music Niagara at 38 years and all of those years have been programmed by Artistic Director Noel Edison.

I fell in love with Elora many years ago when I visited to attend a performance at the old Elora Mill Inn as part of the Guelph Spring Festival back in 1985.  The Guelph Spring Festival is now history, unfortunately but the town made quite an impression on me that has lasted all these years.

When my wife and I began attending Elora Festival events about a dozen years or so ago, the love affair with the town was rekindled yet again and grown so much we can't bear to not visit the town at least once each season if not more.

This year to celebrate Canada's 150th anniversary since Confederaton, Noel has programmed a spectacular multimedia show by Hugh Brewster entitled With Glowing Hearts which will feature a host of special guest artists.   The performance will be on Saturday, July 29th at 7 pm in the Gambrel Barn.

But there is much to enjoy sooner than that as the Festival gets underway tomorrow night with the Opening Night Gala, Night of the Proms featuring The Elora Singers and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir joining forces with full orchestra for an unforgettable night of British classics like Rule Britannia and Elgar's First Pomp & Circumstance March.  Bramwell Tovey of the Vancouver Symphony conducts the performance tomorrow night in the Gambrel Barn.

Other Festival highlights include a sold-out performance by Canada's most-acclaimed Bach interpreter since Glenn Gould, Angela Hewitt on July 15th at 1 pm at St. John's Church.  I first met Angela when she won the International Bach Competition back in the 80s and I have followed her career ever since.

It was a nice bit of serendipity when, during the United States Presidential Election coverage last November I Tweeted I chose to listen to her grand recordings of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Books One & Two instead.  To my surprise she "Liked" my Tweet!  How's that for social media?!

Also featured this season is Canadian singer Susan Aglukark on July 15th in the Gambrel Barn at 7 pm; soprano Karina Gauvin at St. John's Church at 2 pm on July 16th, and the Trinity College Choir in Concert at the Gambrel Barn at 4 pm on July 23rd.  A real highlight for many will be a performance by Canada's iconic singer Gordon Lightfoot on July 22nd at the Gambrel Barn at 8 pm.

The Elora Festival runs only two weeks encompassing three weekends, but they always pack a lot of entertainment into the calendar.  There is literally something for everyone this year to celebrate the country's Sesquicentennial.  And the fact the town itself is supremely liveable and walkable is an added bonus.

For more on the Elora Festival this year, go online to or call 1-519-846-0331.

Have a great weekend and we'll see you at a Festival this month!

July 13th, 2017.

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