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FEATURE | Summer Chamber Music Festivals And The Art Of Post-Pandemic Survival

By Holly Harris on April 17, 2020

James Campbell, Roman Borys & Mark Fewer (Photos: Mark Rash)
James Campbell, Roman Borys & Mark Fewer (Photos: Mark Rash)

Gripped by the realities of a brave new COVID-19 world, artistic directors and presenters around the globe are being forced to make gut-wrenching decisions about the fate of their long planned concerts, satellite events and entire summer music festivals still several months away. Many have fallen, including the Elora Festival, Collingwood Summer Music Festival and Toronto Summer Music with the latter announcing last week it was cancelling its line-up slated for July 9 – August 1.

Ludwig van Toronto recently took the temperature of three of Canada’s largest summer chamber music festivals, with each of their respective artistic directors sharing their hopes and fears, and how they plan to survive these turbulent times.

James Campbell: Festival of the Sound (Parry Sound, Ontario)

Tucked away on the idyllic shores of Georgian Bay and held each July, the FOTS celebrated its auspicious 40th anniversary last summer, with world-renowned Canadian clarinettist James Campbell also notably marking his 35th season as Artistic Director.

“What I’m most proud of is the fact that the Festival is still here,” Campbell told LvT last year, adding almost prophetically, “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 ironclad mettle and can-do spirit will be put to the test this year as Campbell weighs launching the Festival’s fifth decade on July 17, with the three-week event originally scheduled to run through August 8. He remains philosophical about the current situation with COVID-19 and its numbing impact on the international arts community, assuring that FOTS would not technically be cancelled, but merely postponed until July 2021.

“We’re still holding tight but the world has been turned on its head. We might have to push ‘pause’ for this year, put this season to bed, and then carry on from there. We just need to be patient and wait-and see,” Campbell states over the phone from Bloomington, Indiana, where he still maintains a home in addition to another in Parry Sound after retiring from his 31-year faculty teaching position at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music last spring.

This year’s Festival planned to notably trumpet the 60th anniversary of the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, which has since cancelled all its summer programming including its latest European tour, as well as the 50th anniversary of The Canadian Brass still due to appear at press time. Many international artists, including the popular New Zealand String Quartet have pulled up stakes for their North American tour this summer while others much closer to home, such as the Elora Festival Singers have also cancelled, precluding their annual exchange program with FOTS.

One immediate strategy — thus far — has been delaying the opening of the FOTS box office five weeks until May 12th, buying Campbell precious time to make further adjustments in consultation with his Board of Directors led by President Donald Sanderson, Executive Director Alison Scarrow-McGarvey as well as artistic director compatriots scattered throughout North America and overseas as the situation continues to unfold.

Yet the unflappable musician whose own international solo guest appearances have been cancelled well into next season hasn’t missed a beat, beginning the process of calling artists for their availability next July, should this year’s event need to be postponed and essentially reincarnated for 2021.

There are also sobering budgetary challenges that all arts organizations are currently grappling with due to the Coronavirus, and affecting festivals everywhere both large and small.

“We are all deep in the tunnel of uncertainty caused by COVID-19 and with the promised support of funding organizations, we will be searching for the light that will lead us back into the world we know,” Campbell affirms.

Not least of all is another more tangible issue: the Festival’s home, the glorious, acoustically superior Charles W. Stockey Centre for the Performing Arts has shuttered its doors due to the pandemic. Campbell laughs when asked if FOTS might return to its original stomping grounds — the Parry Sound High School gymnasium — where it first rooted 41 years ago and then spearheaded by original founder Anton Kuerti.

“Everything’s on the table, including selling seats six feet apart, live streaming concerts, or offering a smaller festival,” Campbell says, assuring he has a “Plan B, C and D” up his sleeve. The FOTS — like so many other organizations — have also ramped up posting artist videos and profiles on its website and various social media channels, to help keep their loyal audience members engaged and connected.

“Nothing has been decided yet, and I believe the answers will reveal themselves as the world tells us what it possible. Then it will become a Board decision and a community decision, and if we need to postpone this year, we’ll make a great return next summer,” Campbell promises.

“I remember a lesson from my dad, who was a farmer in Alberta. He once watched hail destroying his crop, and when it was all over, he said, ‘Now we’ll see how good farmer I am,’” he adds. “We’re going to survive. Yes, we will be disappointed if we need to postpone, but we’ve been around long enough to know that everything passes. We’ll come through this.”

Roman Borys (Photo: Mark Rash)
Roman Borys (Photo: Mark Rash)

Roman Borys: Ottawa Chamberfest (Ottawa, Ontario)

“From constraints come possibilities,” might be an apt daily mantra for Roman Borys, Artistic Director of the Ottawa Chamber Music Society that produces the annual Chamberfest summer festival, named Ottawa Tourism’s Event of the Year in 2019, held for two weeks each summer, in addition to ongoing yearlong programming. The acclaimed cellist and founding member of the JUNO-award-winning Gryphon Trio also serves as Co-director of the Banff Centre’s Centre Classical Music Summer Programming.

“We’re quite different from other summer festivals as we’re a three-pillar arts organization that has activities throughout the year. That includes a Concert Series, Community Engagement and Education featuring 12 different programs, and our annual summer festival. Any decisions that we make during these uncertain times will affect the nature and delivery of all our programming and go well beyond the summer, so we’re carefully analyzing several possible scenarios as we continue to move forward,” Borys says of the umbrella organization comprised of seven full-time staff including General Manager Peter MacDonald.

In terms of contingency plans for this year’s summer festival, Chamberfest that boasts around 100 eclectic concerts and draws over 100,000 visitors each year, Borys is taking a wait-and-see approach, with an expected official pronouncement regarding mandated limits for local public gatherings providing further clarity and guidance. All Chamberfest marketing materials, including programming information and a season brochure typically released mid-April has been put on hold for now.

“We have not cancelled the festival yet, and aren’t planning to until the public health authorities declare they’re not allowing any group gatherings until after Labour Day,” Borys affirms. “But as soon as that happens, we will formally announce there won’t be any public performances presented by us,” he emphasizes. “As for now, what I will say is that the Festival as I had planned is not happening.”

During these rapidly evolving times, Borys is continuing to explore other options. One already bearing rich fruit is his newly launched online initiative, Chamber Chats: At Home, Chez vous, hosted by Eric Friesen in which listeners tuning in twice weekly through the power of video conferencing in lieu of in-person sessions (contact Travis Croken to be added to the invitation list: tcroken@chamberfest.com ) are treated to free, insightful lectures and performances by guest artists hailing from around the world.

Still on the table is the possibility of offering live concerts at some point in the late summer, although a government decree would obviously curtail those plans. Live streaming and other means of live performance delivery are all being considered with the intent of keeping patrons and staff engaged while creating as many innovative revenue generating opportunities for all Chamberfest artists everywhere.

Borys is keenly aware of the clouds of uncertainty the entire world lives under these days, and states final seating limits won’t be determined until a vaccine for the Coronavirus is eventually discovered during today’s new normal climate of physical distancing — that precludes typical mix-and mingle intermissions or pre-show schmoozing.

He credits being a relatively smaller, more tightly compact organization for providing agility in decision-making, and sings praises for Chamberfest’s “caring patrons and donors” as well as its robust volunteer base for their ongoing, steadfast support. Those donors will become even more critical to the lifeblood of the organization, which will rely even more heavily on continued support either through ticket sales or financial gifts.

Borys remains in close contact with the close-knit network of artistic directors across Canada, and particularly with West Coast group, Early Music Vancouver, similar in scope and design to Chamberfest, with EMV Executive and Artistic Director Matthew White, who has also served as artistic advisor to Chamberfest for many years.

Despite the inestimable challenges being faced by all arts groups right now, Borys remains upbeat about the future, drilling into a musician’s innate wellspring of creativity and ingenuity to think outside the box while also proving the adage, necessity is the mother of invention.

“Although live concert presentation isn’t possible at this time, the current situation does provide us with a unique opportunity to explore how chamber music and aspects of the social gathering that is the festival experience might translate to the digital realm,” he states.

Mark Fewer (Photo: Mark Rash)
Mark Fewer (Photo: Mark Rash)

Mark Fewer: Stratford Summer Music (Stratford, Ontario)

“We’re basically checking our pulse every day,” states Mark Fewer, who led the SweetWater Music Festival in Owen Sound, ON as founding artistic director for 16 years before taking the reins of the Stratford Summer Music festival in 2019. “We’re still planning and moving ahead as if we’re going to have the summer season, although it seems less likely as each day passes that may not happen,” the JUNO Award and Prix Opus winning violinist adds of his sophomore SSM slated to run July 20 – August 23.

Fewer also maintains close contact with a network of 12 or 13 festival artistic directors throughout Canada, as well as in the U.S. and Europe, including coincidentally a Zoom conference call the morning after this interview with Campbell and Borys. During those meetings, each director is able to share their individual perspective as well as brainstorm strategies for the immediate future and beyond, including how to lure and reassure skittish audience members that the time-honoured ritual of gathering in groups to hear live music will — someday — return after a still critical need for physical distancing.

“It’s been fascinating for me personally to see how we’re all suddenly much more cognizant of how much we need each other,” the Newfoundland-born artist reveals. “If you’re a well-trained classical musician, you can’t help but have an awareness about the people around you because that’s part of your training. Some would say that’s just being human, or being a nice guy, but it comes from the same sense of empathy or radar one has for each other within an intimate musical environment. It’s that same discipline now being projected out in a different fashion because of the nature of this particular situation.”

Vital to keeping any arts organization afloat on uncharted waters is a strong infrastructure including a fiercely dedicated Board of Governors, as well as loyal community support — enjoyed in abundance by SSM, with Fewer particularly singing praises for his Board.

“Our Board members come from a wide range of backgrounds and they’re incredibly capable, organized and devoted to seeing this whole enterprise not just survive, but flourish well into the future,” he says. “We’re all going to be struggling for the next few years no matter what, including seeing reduced ticket sales and some of the money we would normally bank on from certain donors won’t be there. But at the same time, that just strengthens our resolve.”

Fewer is also exploring different options for the Festival. Some of those include launching a more tightly condensed, shorter festival later this summer, maintaining the same five-week scheduling footprint, however offering fewer concerts, or an outright cancellation of the entire festival as necessary. Still on his radar is live streaming of concerts despite his wariness of creating a Pandora’s box that might not potentially be able to generate sufficient revenue to pay professional artist fees.

The word “hope” is laced through conversation with Fewer like a leitmotif, with the violinist sharing his personal views on how musicians — and their festivals — will ultimately survive these transformative times.

“My hope is that perhaps after these types of crises, we come out the other end and begin to appreciate the arts even more for what they contribute on a regular basis to our lives,” he says.

“Now when we don’t have live arts in front of us anymore, we’re suddenly aware of how much we need music, and not just for entertainment but for giving enrichment to the human psyche and the human soul.

“It is the truth of the arts that they can provide something of profound value to lean on during difficult and challenging times.”

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Holly Harris

Holly Harris is a freelance Arts Critic & Columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press, and a contributing writer for Opera Canada, Opera Today, Dance International (Winnipeg Report), The Dance Current, Symphony, and The Strad.
Holly Harris

Holly Harris

Holly Harris is a freelance Arts Critic & Columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press, and a contributing writer for Opera Canada, Opera Today, Dance International (Winnipeg Report), The Dance Current, Symphony, and The Strad.
Holly Harris
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