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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 3, No. 9

Ottawa Chamber Music Festival (July 25 - August 7, 1998)

by Philip Anson / July 1, 1998

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Back in 1993 Ottawa-based cellist Julian Armour noticed that classical music events had vanished from the nation’s capital during the summer months. He and his friend Gordon Johnson, music director of St. John the Evangelist church, rallied their musician friends and decided to do something about it. When Armour said "Let’s start a festival," few of them could have imagined that the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival (OCMF) would develop into one of the biggest events of its kind in North America.

The OCMF’s first season of 22 concerts was so popular they had to turn people away. The next year they incorporated and set up a board of directors. The number of concerts increased to 48, the budget was a modest $60,000 and attendance was excellent. Each year since then, the pattern of expansion has continued. In just 5 years, the OCMF has seen its attendance triple and its budget increase tenfold to $600,000. This year’s OCMF celebrates its fifth birthday with 74 concerts over a two-week period (July 25 to August 7). Judging by brisk ticket sales, the Festival expects this year’s attendance to at least equal last year’s of 32,000.

The OCMF’s success is all the more remarkable in the current economic hard times for arts organisations. Over milkshakes at Montreal’s Café Santropol, Armour attributed the festival’s success to several factors. The festival makes a great effort to reach potential audiences beyond their core audience of chamber music lovers, with a "Try it, you’ll like it" approach. "We want to dispel the myth that chamber music is intellectual and boring. If we can get people to come and then give them a really exciting performance, we’ve made a convert to the cause." This year the festival has raised its national profile with a Festival By Request contest, announced on CBC Radio by Shelagh Rogers. On August 7, the festival’s last day, the winners will be flown to Ottawa and their requests will be played and broadcast live. The festival also has a Family Fair one week before the festival starts. They take over a local school and give 100 mini-concerts, as well as hosting workshops where children can handle and play instruments, explore music-related computer programs and see instrument-makers at work. Armour hopes students of all ages will attend the festival’s main concerts. Sales of the festival’s low-priced student passes are up 25% this year.

One unusual feature of the festival is scheduling concerts throughout the day, catering to day people and night owls. There are noon-hour concerts for workaholics, after-work concerts where parents can meet their kids, regular 8 pm evening concerts, and midnight concerts in the wonderful ambience of a darkened church. With an average of 6 concerts per day, out-of-town visitors can really pack in the music.

And what kind of music is on the program? One of the keys to the festival’s success is giving audiences what they want. The festival did extensive surveys to determine the audience’s wishes, so there will be plenty of your favourite Schubert, Brahms and Mozart plus a sprinkling of more modern works. The festival doesn’t have a contemporary music advisor and Armour doesn’t push his favourite contemporary music on his musicians. His theory is that contemporary music flops because it is played by people who don’t believe in it. "By letting the performers decide what modern works they want to play, they give a more committed performance," he explains. "The audience can sense whether the players have their heart in it." This year, August 3 will be devoted to four concerts of works by eight Ottawa composers, including several new commissions.

The festival takes place in 10 downtown Ottawa churches and concert halls easily accessible on foot and by public transportation. Except for the six Pass Plus concerts, admission is on a first-come, first-served basis. People line up hours in advance for the most popular events. Get there early: last year they turned away the Mayor of Ottawa from a sold-out concert. The concerts are informal (the churches get hot, so shorts are OK) and the ambience is friendly. The majority of the audience are from Ottawa but 12 % come from elsewhere in Quebec and Ontario.

A festival is only as good as its talent, and Armour has lined up many of Canada’s best musicians, as well as internationally renowned ensembles. Among this year’s 150 musicians are the Beaux Arts Trio, the Tokyo String Quartet, the Emerson String Quartet, the Canadian Brass, Martin Beaver, Penderecki Quartet, Paul Stewart, Martin Chalifour, Monica Whicher, Julie Nesrallah, Quartango, Neil Gripp, Richard Raymond, St. Lawrence Quartet, Mayumi Seiler, Keller Quartet, and Adaskin String Trio. Quebec artists include Marc-André Hamelin, Paul Merkelo, Patrick Wedd, Guy Fouquet, Musica Camerata, Stéphane Lemelin, Timothy Vernon, Jennifer Swartz, Matthew White, and Gino Quilico.

This year’s highlights will be a Jacques Hétu birthday concert, William Walton’s surrealist Façade narrated by Mary Lou Fallis, and an Ottawa Composer’s Day with four concerts of specially commissioned new creations. Over 20 of this year’s concerts will be broadcast by CBC Radio. For ticket and schedule information call: 613-234-8008.

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