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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 9, No. 9

Elora Festival making Sweet Music at 25

by Joseph So / June 5, 2004

Noel Edison
n those distant days of 1979, an enthusiastic group of music lovers dared to dream of starting an early music summer festival in the picturesque village of Elora, Ontario. Included in that group of pioneers was a young music student, Noel Edison. Now, 25 years later, Edison is a respected choral director, conductor, and the artistic director of the Elora Festival. Modeled after Tanglewood and Spoleto USA, it has earned the enviable reputation as the place to go for summer choral music in Ontario. Though its program is diverse, ranging from classics to folk, pop, and world music, its main focus remains the classical voice. To celebrate its silver jubilee, the festival promises its most ambitious program in years, signifying a certain artistic coming of age. Here Edison reflects on the past and contemplates the future.

LSM/TMS: Looking back over the last 25 years, what are your most memorable moments?

NE: That's hard to pinpoint; there were many artistically memorable moments. But I also quietly celebrate the achievements we have made in the corporate and administrative support that have to be in place to make any event a success. Signposts such as when we enjoyed a concert in a new venue, like the Gambrel Barn--we've been there now for 15 years. We now have a solid following of patrons who are keen to experience new works with us. Having a host of international artists every year is always a good advancement, and so is the solidifying of the orchestra, with players from the Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo symphonies.

LSM/TMS: You are opening the season with Beethoven's 9th--a monumental piece. And you are combining it with Poulenc's Gloria.

NE: Beethoven's 9th is a revolutionary work, one used in points of great occasion, a symphony that celebrates life, humanity, and creativity--the summation of a festival. Everybody knows the Ode to Joy. But my favourite is the third movement, the most expressive and transforming part of the symphony. We open the season also on the 9th--of July! The nature of the festival is to have lots of sacred music, and Beethoven's 9th is not a religious work as such. Gloria is a great work--vibrant, extremely evocative, and loaded with instrumental and vocal colours, a good contrast to the powerful symphony.

LSM/TMS: And a week later, you are bringing to your audience the Verdi Requiem for the first time.

NE: It is one of my favourites; it is a sacred opera. Despite it being a requiem, it is really a work of celebration. My problem with it is that it has fallen into a tradition of excesses. Being from a "lean, mean cuisine" school of music making, I tend to be tidier with the piece, although that does not in any way inhibit its emotional and expressive qualities. Any great work with such emotional impact as the Verdi Requiem, it's right on the page. And if you have any soul, you just bring it off the page and make it work.

LSM/TMS: What is the secret of the success of the Elora Festival?

NE: A festival is a celebration of a community, whether through music or dance, or theatre, or whatever. A festival must have a sense of occasion about it, a sense of excellence, and a sense of celebration. You package it as incredible entertainment, incredible enlightenment, incredible affinity for understanding different kinds of music, and a cleansing of the soul through the sound of music. With all those things in mind, you program accordingly. I try to get a variety of things that complement each other--presenting different acts, different eras of music, different influences, different colours.

This festival celebrates the shedding of the winter formalities. You can park on the streets, wander in and out of churches and restaurants; it's intimate and personal. There is an immediacy about it--you have great artists mingling with the audience before and after.

LSM/TMS: We in Canada don't have any full-summer music festivals like Tanglewood or the great festivals of Europe. Why do you think that is?

NE: Part of that is due to our climate: summer music tends to be more outdoors than indoors like Stratford or Shaw. If you are looking at great festivals like Tanglewood and Ravinia, they have great facilities for the outdoors. That being said, we are looking towards expanding to the entire summer period. We are about to negotiate a parcel of land we are keen on. With that will come a residency of a major orchestra and a summer school. The arts are a slow process in Canada; we don't have the generational wealth, and we just don't have the population. A lot of my artistic colleagues are outraged that the government doesn't give more money to the arts. I am not one who thinks we should look to the government because governments are very fickle. We should look for corporate support.

LSM/TMS: As artistic director, do you enjoy being the front person, dealing with the government, the community, the city?

NE: Well, I have a very good executive director/general manager who deals with these aspects. My principal interest beyond the music and the programming is fundraising, which I enjoy. I have some meetings with the government occasionally; the local people I know well. Being the front person? Yeah, some days it's not a bad job, other days--[laughs]--it's part and parcel of the beast.

LSM/TMS: Any new recording projects?

NE: We did a recording of Arvo Part; it will be released this summer. I am doing a recording of Messiah this fall, and a recording of the music of Healey Willan next winter. The choir has just done a disc of church music with Karina Gauvin; I just finished editing it three weeks ago. All of these are on the Naxos label.

(c) La Scena Musicale