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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 14, No. 9 June 2009

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

Crystal Chan

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 string quartet.

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

Festival Knowlton: Taking Flight

Paul Robinson

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 our questions.

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 more diversity.

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 permanent home.

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 its performances?

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 American cities.

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

Festival Elora: New Directions

Crystal Chan

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 quarry.

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 response.

“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

Festival Orford: Davis Joachim

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

Crystal Chan

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

(c) La Scena Musicale