Tucked away on the picturesque shores of Georgian Bay, the Festival of the Sound (FOTS) marks its 40th anniversary with a three-week birthday bash that runs between July 19 through August 10.
And the reason for its success as one of the country’s premier chamber music festivals is simple, according to artistic director, renowned Canadian-American clarinettist James Campbell who has helmed FOTS for an equally astonishing 34 years.
“Because Parry Sound wants it,” the artist says modestly from Bloomington, Indiana, where he recently retired from his 40-year faculty teaching position at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. “A lot of people ask, how can this all happen in this small northern Ontario town? But it’s the community, as well as the strength of the Board and volunteers that continues to support it. The local residents really do feel they own it, and it’s part of their DNA now. It’s not my festival. I work for them.”
Those with long memories might recall the FOTS’s earliest roots as the brainchild of legendary Canadian pianist Anton Kuerti, who had purchased a summer cottage in the area, and launched a highly successful three-concert pilot series after sharing his vision with prospective organizers over his own kitchen table in 1979. All concerts for its first 23 years were held in the Parry Sound High School gymnasium — a non-air conditioned crucible located near two major Canadian rail lines with train whistles often blasting mid-concerts that only forged the residents’ iron resolve. Campbell, who performed during those fledgling years, with Kuerti asking him to take the reins in 1985, still waxes nostalgic about those halcyon days, even flirting briefly with the idea of staging one of this year’s concerts in the Festival’s original locale as a blast to the past.
“Those nights were incredible in that place; however if we hadn’t gotten a hall, we wouldn’t have survived 40 years,” he says, referring to the Charles W. Stockey Centre for the Performing Arts, 20 years in the making and created to the tune of $8.5 million. The acoustically superior, 400-seat concert venue named after late Toronto philanthropist/musician, Charles Stockey, has played a pivotal role in the Festival’s development. Opening to great fanfare in July 2003, it allowed the annual rite of summer to virtually double in size almost immediately. “Every year, the committee would decorate the lobby. They’d tear down the basketball nets, bring in metal chairs, build a stage, and brace for those hot nights,” Campbell reminisces. “…But it was always a lot of fun.”
The Festival has since grown by leaps and bounds. It now offers dedicated jazz, folk, and pops weekends, as well as a full menu of ongoing satellite events including panel discussions, films, lectures, musical lake cruises and gala dinners firmly sealing its reputation as one, big audience-friendly party for music connoisseurs.
“Our mandate is chamber music; however we like to give a choice,” Campbell explains of his inclusive programming. “Basically, we want to present good music […] that can come from any source, including country and rap music. Whatever language you’re speaking, and with whatever accent you’re using, as long as you’re telling the truth, and you’re doing it well so that it communicates with listeners,’ then that’s good music.”
The FOTS playlist of performers reads like a veritable who’s who of world-class musicians, with this year’s line-up of classical artists including Russell Braun, Campbell, Cameron Crossley, Guy Few, Janina Fialkowska, and Martin Roscoe, as well as acclaimed chamber ensembles: the Gryphon Trio, New Zealand String Quartet, and the Penderecki String Quartet, to name only a few.
Many, if not most of its artists, are diehard regulars, thronging each year to the idyllic setting that creates both continuity as well as a musical terra firma for Campbell’s planted, creative seeds to grow and flourish. Its operating budget managed by Executive Director Alison Scarrow-McGarvey has blossomed from an original $60K for a two-week event in 1980 to its current $700K with an expanded three weeks, as further testament to the Festival’s success that has led to its being honoured by the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for the Arts awarded in 1995 and 2013, as well as garnering a Top 100 award from the Festival and Events Ontario every year since 2016. The Festival is also notably the second-largest economic generator in the town of roughly 6,500 residents during winter months, including a box office of 12,000-14,000 tickets sold per year, and eclipsed only by the popular Island Queen boat cruises. Scarrow-McGarvey also sings praise for the dedicated volunteer base of roughly 150 that makes the Festival hum each year.
This year’s programming features several dedicated concerts paying homage to the FOTS’s 40-year legacy. An opening night gala concert on July 20 features highlights from the past, as well as the world premiere of “The Sound: A musical evocation of Georgian Bay” by Eric Robertson and Gary Michael Dault. The new work will be performed by the Elmer Iseler Singers led by Lydia Adams, also celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, and a FOTS pillar with the group having performed nearly every summer there since 1982.
An ambitious “40 for 40,” being held August 9, features a mind-boggling 40 works representing each year of the Festival presented all day throughout Parry Sound, beginning on the Island Queen and culminating with a grand finale that night at the Stockey Centre.
“That’s a crazy day. Often we’ll do something that doesn’t fit the books, and this is one of them,” Campbell says with a laugh. “That’s been a really nice thing about the festival because it’s allowed me to try these different kinds of projects.”
“And So We Began” will be a sentimental favourite, comprised of the same all-Beethoven program led by Kuerti 40 years ago to the day on August 5 featuring cellist Bryan Chen, pianist Sylvie Cheng, violinist Yolanda Bruno, violinist Moshe Hammer, and pianist Glen Montgomery joined by Campbell. But another will be “A Family Affair,” on August 8, featuring father-and-son Russian-born pianists, Alexander and Daniel Tselyakov, the New Zealand String Quartet, as well as a performance of Campbell’s own guitarist/composer son Graham Campbell’s “Pender Harbour Paradise”. The piece will premiere at the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival in BC this August, proving the apple doesn’t fall from the proverbial tree.
The festival has also hosted orchestras of note, with the National Youth Orchestra of Canada conducted by Michael Francis performing Mahler 5 during the aptly titled “Mahler’s Masterpiece” on July 25. The National Academy Orchestra helmed by Boris Brott takes the stage on August 10 featuring Alexander Tselyakov in Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23” — in fact, Brott’s younger brother Denis stepped in for a touring Campbell as FOTS artistic director for one season in 1991 before subsequently founding his own Montreal Chamber Music Festival in 1995.
Campbell has often taken his shows on the road to other festivals, with this year no exception, with a celebratory concert “Festival of the Sound at 40” slated for Ottawa’s Chamberfest on July 28. This year it also welcomes Winnipeg’s Agassiz Chamber Music Festival, among others, marking its FOTS debut, spearheaded by founding artistic director, cellist Paul Marleyn who now teaches at the University of Ottawa. The concert that takes place July 31, and titled “Blue Ocean” after Manitoba composer Jim Hiscott’s folk-infused work features Hiscott on button accordion, Marleyn, violinist Karl Stobbe, Roscoe and Campbell, hosted by CBC broadcaster Andrea Ratuski.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to spread the Winnipeg brand further afield,” Marleyn says over the phone from Ottawa, who has performed “five or six” times at FOTS, with Campbell in turn also having performed with Agassiz numerous times throughout its own 20-year history.
“Jim is such an icon across the country in the classical music world,” the cellist affirms. “He’s a highly admired artistic director with wonderful people skills and is an inspiring mentor to so many of us with our own festivals. He manages to achieve his vision, and makes everyone feel it’s his or her vision too, and is highly effective but with a very gentle touch. He’s generous with his advice when asked, and does everything very gracefully,” he enthuses. “His wife Carol also plays a significant role in always providing great feedback and suggestions following each concert, as not only a wonderful partner for Jim, but also an important festival advisor.”
The FOTS has always prided itself on its mandate for nurturing the next generation of musicians through an impressive line-up of masterclasses, open rehearsals, workshops, and lectures by visiting composers and performers, including its Music from the Inside Out family concerts launched in 2001, ongoing winter series for elementary students, Music Scores, and Strings Across the Sky program that empowers Canada’s First Nations, Inuit and Metis children through the magic of making music with fiddles, violins and guitars.
It also boasts an impressive track record of commissioning new works, through its initial Discovery Series, a residency program for emerging composers mentored by Gary Kulesha, as well as Stockey Young Artists Program created in 2005. This year the latter is being led by percussionist and artistic director of Continuum Contemporary Music, Ryan Scott, who mentors three invited young composers whose music will be premiered during the “Discovery Concert” on August 7.
But perhaps one of the biggest feathers in Campbell’s cap is his commissioning last year of the critically acclaimed “Sounding Thunder: The Song Of Francis Pegahmagabow,” an interdisciplinary work composed by Tim Corlis with text by Ojibwe poet Armand Garnet Ruffo. Inspired by life and legacy of highly decorated indigenous World War I soldier, political activist, and area resident, Francis Pegahmagabow, a documentary of the complex, 80-minute work’s creative process will be screened August 6 with both Corlis and filmmaker Earl McCluskie in attendance.
“That’s probably one the most important things we’ve done at the Festival,” Campbell says with palpable reverence. “It’s an extremely powerful work that created a very strong connection with the Objiway Nation on the nearby Wasauksing First Nation. My own personal learning curve was tremendous, and it really spoke to the spirit of Truth and Reconciliation with Canada’s aboriginal communities,” he adds.
Still in the slipstream of his recent university retirement, Campbell becomes reflective when asked about that perennial elephant in the room — succession planning — and when he might be ready to pass the baton to the Festival’s next artistic director, and notably only its third leader in its 40-year history.
“What I’ve learned by my retirement at Indiana University is that you know when it’s time to move on,” Campbell responds. “I’ve had a succession plan in place now for many years, but it keeps changing. However, I do know that when that time arrives, I will be able to recognize it. But that day hasn’t come yet, thankfully,” he adds.
“What I’m most proud of is the fact that the Festival is still here,” he adds of his own illustrious 34-year directorship. “But I’m also proud of our tenacity, and the determination and love of a small Northern Ontario community that has made this international music festival happen every summer for 40 years. That really gives me a good feeling.”
The Festival of the Sound runs July 19 to August 10. See festivalofthesound.ca for details.