Mixing Business With (Musical) Pleasure: Behind the Scenes of Five of Canada's Top Music Festivals
June 14, 2009
Canada loves its classical music festivals:
there are over 150 of them every summer, and more during the rest of
the year. To feed the growing appetite for them, new festivals still
crop up now and then; a notable recent addition Kent Nagano’s Knowlton
Festival, inaugurated just last summer. On the other end of the equation
there are those festivals that have passed the test of time: Orford
Festival has been around since 1951, and the Scotiafest, Festival of
the Sound, and Elora Festival all celebrate their 30th anniversaries
this summer. How does each festival find and carve out its particular
niche? In a time of recession, finding the money to operate a short
annual event that harnesses year-round resources can get tough. La
Scena Musicale gets right to the source and finds out what challenges
these festivals face what innovative solutions they offer are as they
aim to attract the best artists.
SCOTIAFEST : Giving Back
Inspired by the Cleveland Orchestra’s
Blossom festival, Managing and Artistic Director Christopher Wilcox
started the maritime fest that’s featured the likes of Pierre Boulez,
Philip Glass, Christos Hatzis, and R. Murray Schafer: Scotiafest (June
1-14). About 60 concerts, open recitals, masterclasses, and round tables
take place during the festival.
This year, 200 musicians are gathering
in Halifax to perform Mahler’s grand Second Symphony. Bombastic musical
guests include Jaroslav Tuma, an organist who recently set the world
record for playing five concerts in one day in five different countries
and superstar pianist John Novacek. The Elmer Iseler Singers from Toronto
are also performing, as is the nucleus of the festival, its own Supernova
Scotiafest’s an in-town type
of festival: the concert hall is small for most concerts, and tickets
sell out fast in the community so they largely do not target audiences
elsewhere in Canada. It has attracted national attention, however; when
Pierre Boulez came from Paris with his contemporary ensemble, the festival
started attracting more widespread international attention. In 1991
the Globe & Mail called the festival the greatest music event
in Canada’s history.
The festival certainly aims to
give back to the local community. In the winter, there are weekly chamber
music concerts. Nonprofit and amateur groups come to the Music Room,
Scotiafest’s premiere 110-seat hall, equipped with a recording studio
and boasting high-level acoustics, to record as well as perform. Scotiafest
also arranges open rehearsals and concerts at schools, retirement homes,
and parks as well as transportation for students to attend concerts.
During the summer festival, the Young Artist Program brings together
aspiring and high-calibre musicians. This summer 74 students from across
North America, Europe, and South America will participate in two weeks
of private lessons, masterclasses, and concerts with concertmasters
and star artists.
Wilcox stressed that this type
of educationally transformative experience was, for him, the highlight
of what the Scotiafest experience can offer. “I was in New York, and
Pierre [Boulez] was conducting the Chicago symphony at Carnegie Hall,”
he said. “I was in a dress rehearsal and pianist John Novacek said,
‘I’d like you to meet a friend of mine,’ and introduced me to
the principal violist. He took a look at me and said: ‘Chris Wilcox!
I can’t believe it’s you! I was a student at Scotiafest in ‘82.’
That kind of thing just thrills me to death. He was a student here and
now he’s the principal violist of one of the greatest orchestras in
the world.” Another great ‘student’ of Scotiafest is the St. Lawrence
String Quartet, who studied at the festival in 1986. www.scotiafestival.ns.ca
The Knowlton Festival – formerly the
Bel Canto Festival – will take place August 4-16 in the Eastern Townships,
with Kent Nagano as artistic director and the Montreal Symphony the
resident orchestra; in fact, the MSO has cancelled their Mozart Plus
series in Montreal to avoid conflicts. International level events include
Bellini’s La Sonnambula starring Sumi Jo, all four Brahms symphonies
and performances by Ben Heppner, Thomas Hampson and Stephen Kovacevich.
The president and CEO of the Knowlton Festival Marco Genoni answers
Why the name change?
Like many other successful festivals,
we wanted to link the name of the festival to its location. The bel
canto component in our festival remains very strong with the performance
of a Bellini opera and we are maintaining a close connection with the
Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia and its president Bruno Cagli,
to offer master classes in bel canto. But this year we are offering
The festival is still in Knowlton
but why have your moved the actual location for the concerts?
Last year’s location was not available
on a permanent basis, and the road in front of it had to be closed for
the period of the festival, which was not ideal for local residents.
We have now found a similar setting nearby and this land has been bought
by a benefactor as the permanent location for the festival.
The tent used last year could seat
about 800 people but this year you will have a tent seating 1,050. What
was your thinking about the venue?
Last year we were lucky with the weather
but we may not always be so lucky. We now have a tent structure that
can be taken down and stored after the festival. It will provide cover
for the patrons
not only in the performance area but
also in the bar and in the area where the shuttle buses arrive and depart.
Once the festival is well established we will start thinking about a
Tell me about the organizational
structure of the festival.
We tried to mirror the cooperation between
the London Philharmonic and the Glyndebourne Festival. We have a five-year
agreement for Knowlton to be the official summer residence of the MSO.
Most of the board of the festival is comprised of Knowlton residents
but this board also includes three members of the board of the MSO.
Given the current recession, how is
it possible for the Knowlton Festival to expand and apparently increase
Even in this severe recession many companies
are still doing well. We have a unique product and I think we will be
able to draw people from the Knowlton area, Montreal and even from major
What did you learn from the first
season about the relationship between
the community and the festival?
Last year, to save money we put our guest
artists in private homes. At first, some artists were apprehensive about
this arrangement, but the experience proved so successful that some
of these same artists are looking forward to this arrangement and bringing
their families. Knowlton is a community of givers. If they can, they
give money, time or accommodation. www.knowltonfestival.com
What sets Elora Festival (July
10 - August 2) apart is its dedication to choral music. The Juno-award
nominated and internationally popular Elora Festival Singers perform
year round and two-thirds of the summer programming centers on the 29-year
old choir. Other festival highlights you’ll catch this 30th anniversary
year include world-renowned soprano Dawn Upshaw, Canadian jazzman Oliver
Jones, and a dramatic festival-opening performance of Berlioz’s Requiem,
which General Manager Jurgen Petrenk jokes “uses every brass player
in Ontario!” The most spectacular concert of all, however, has to
be the ‘Quarry’ concert: Natalie MacMaster, Paul and Nick Halley,
gospel legend Theresa Thomason, Serena Ryder, and the Elora Festival
Singers will be performing on a floating raft on a lake in an old limestone
Serena Ryder isn’t your typical
classical music headliner; Petrenko is eager to ensure the Festival
crosses musical boundaries in its search for the best artist. Six years
ago, the Festival started incorporating jazz, and this year the program
has everything from Billie Holiday standards to klezmer. So far, according
to Petrenko, the new ‘blend’-based programming has received a positive
“We’re moving into the pop
world with [Serena Ryder],” said Petrenko. “We’re hoping to enlarge
our audience range. We’re a Classical music festival at the core,
but certainly moving beyond that. I think there is a lot of crossover
interest from our audience, who do not only enjoy one style of music.
There’s always the concern that we don’t want to lose our identity
but I don’t think that’s been happening. The top criterion is quality.
It doesn’t matter so much what it is, as long as it’s excellent.”
An organization based on one annual
event makes for tricky business. Although it’s mitigated by year-round
fundraising events and a winter concert series, the bulk of Elora’s
revenue is received during the summer. Elora Festival gets the largest
chunk of its funding, around 50%, from ticket sales, 30% from the Canada
Council and 20% from fundraising. In a time of recession, corporate
funding has taken a hard hit. In response, Elora’s revitalized a drive
to attract new corporate sponsors, which Petrenko is optimistic will
also pay off in the long run. For now, government funding and private
individual donations are holding steady and will keep them afloat. Elora
also has new plans to build up a cash reserve for the winter months,
and for the first time, Elora is discontinuing the lowly-attended January
and February winter concerts. Instead, Elora will dedicate the time
to recording the Elora Festival singers.
This year Elora also inaugurates
a Festival Academy which will allow half a dozen aspiring singers and
pianists to work with two vocal teachers and one piano teacher from
Wilfred Laurier University during an intensive week of coaching, master
classes, meeting artists, and attending concerts. The Young Performers
Competition and the Festival Kids Camp will continue. www.elorafestival.com
Wah Keung Chan
The 58-year-old Orford Festival
has had its ups and downs. It was in Fall 2007, one the difficult periods,
that classical guitarist Davis Joachim stepped in as general director.
“Every festival and arts groups has its rough patches,” said Joachim,
whose path as an arts administrator has included successful periods
with the Orchestre symphonique de Trois-Rivières and I Musici de Montréal.
In 2007, before Joachim started, the Quebec government and philanthropists
such as the Desmarais stepped in with financial help to save Orford.
Joachim, however, followed the basic principles of fundraising. Naturally,
knowing key players helps. “The first step I took was to thank people
for work that had been done before. Then we started to update our database,
simply calling to make sure people received our brochure and asking
if they had questions, no hard sells. We also hired a marketing firm
to update the festival’s image,” he explained. Joachim also put
a face to the festival by greeting visitors before concerts and introducing
each program, since, as he told us, “People respond to knowing the
CEO. Finally, we postponed our donation appeals from February to the
fall, when people who have just had a great summer are more likely to
give to charity.”
During the 2008 Festival, the first
under Joachim’s watch, subscriptions increased and donations doubled,
and the festival’s budget grew to $3 million, along with the number
of concerts, including a new fall season. This year, Joachim officially
takes on the hat of “interim artistic director,” and his 70-concert
series includes some gems, including Les Violons du Roy, Isabel Bayrakdarian
and the New Orford String Quartet. Violinist Jonathan Crow, who filled
in at the last minute last year to replace an injured Ann Robert, has
been called in to create a new edition of the famed quartet. Although
Orford’s production of Berg’s Wozzeck conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin
won awards, Joachim won’t bring back opera to Orford anytime soon.
“It’s too expensive, and I have only 499 seats to sell.”
For the 7-week season, residents
from the Eastern Townships normally make up 50% of the audience, while
the rest are tourists. Joachim pointed out that “for someone to drive
one and a half hours to listen to a concert, it has to be something
special,” and the Festival’s renowned Summer Academy is part of
the attraction. Ensuring the quality of teachers and students and providing
career guidance, and outreach is half of Joachim’s preoccupations.
The “interim” tag as artistic director does not bother him. “The
board is apprehensive about officially giving the job of both general
and artistic director to one person because they would like the former
be a financial conscience to the latter.” When Joachim finds the new
artistic director, he will use the extra time to take the Festival to
the next level.
Festival Of The Sound:
Small Town, Big Sounds
The two-time Lieutenant Governor’s
Award for the Arts-winning Festival of the Sound (July 17 - August 9)
is a chamber music lover’s dream vacation. Festival attendees even
enjoy music on cruise ships exploring the Newfoundland coasts. Anton
Kuerti purchased a summer home in Parry Sound and started the Festival
in 1979 with three concerts in the high-school gym. It was Ontario’s
first annual international summer classical music festival. After 30
years, the Festival now puts on over 60 shows; in 2003, it set up a
state-of-the-art concert hall and doubled its budget, audience, and
number of events.
This year, some artists that have
never before been to the Festival include Canadian Brass and 14-year-old
Calgarian pianist Jan Lisiecki. The Leipzig String Quartet will also
take the stage, and Orford Six Pianos’ performance will be as grandiose
as its name suggests. Other features include Brahms’ Requiem and celebrations
of Handel, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Benny Goodman anniversary years. The
Festival has a ‘something for everyone’ philosophy. Civic Holiday
weekend is ‘jazz weekend,’ something partially brought about by
Artistic Director and clarinetist James Campbell.
On its 30th birthday, General
Manger Margaret Boyd stressed the Festival plans to cement what it does
best rather than branch out into new terrain. “In many ways we tried
to make this year like any other,” said Boyd. “Chamber music is
day in and day out, sometimes three concerts a day. That’s what we
do best, and what our audience has come to expect.”
The Festival’s small-town setting
dramatically shapes how it runs. Around 80% of the audience is out-of-towners.
The programming is jam-packed, with several workshops, lectures, and
concerts going on at any given time. Whereas city festival-goers often
select the shows they like and then return home after the curtain comes
down, those attending the Festival of the Sound expect their vacation
to be worth it.
The Festival needs around $2 for
every $1 received through ticket sales. Since 1989 the Festival of the
Sound has received one-sixth of their funding from the Department of
Canadian Heritage. Remarkably, in a period of vicious budget cuts and
a new emphasis on personal frugality, federal funding has jumped almost
50% in the last two years and individual donations continue to grow,
now counting for 18-20% of revenues. Unlike festivals in larger cities,
Festival of the Sound has a harder time attracting corporate donations.
So individual donations are crucial.
In 2003, steady investments allowed
for the building of the Charles W. Stockey Centre for the Performing
Arts. “Kuerti always thought the Festival of the Sound needed and
deserved a very fine concert hall and that it should sit on the shores
of Georgian Bay,” explained Boyd. “It took from 1979 to 2003 to
make that happen, but we do have a wonderful hall built specifically
for chamber music. It’s located right on the Parry Sound waterfront...
We share the building with the Bobby Orr Hall of Fame. So hockey and
music: I don’t think you can get any more Canadian than that... The
sound is absolutely phenomenal. The acoustics in the hall for unamplified
music are, I would say, almost unparalleled in the world.” www.festivalofthesound.ca