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INTERVIEW | Co-Founders/Co-Artistic Directors Johannes Debus & Elissa Lee Talk About BIGLAKE Festival 2024

By Anya Wassenberg on May 23, 2024

L-R: Festival co-founders & co-artistic directors Johannes Debus & Elissa Lee; Pianist Louis Lortie (Photo: Elias Photography); Sarah Slean performs alongside Johannes Debus and the BIGLAKE Orchestra (Photo courtesy of BIGLAKES)
L-R: Festival co-founders & co-artistic directors Johannes Debus & Elissa Lee; Pianist Louis Lortie (Photo: Elias Photography); Sarah Slean performs alongside Johannes Debus and the BIGLAKE Orchestra (Photo courtesy of BIGLAKES)

The 2024 BIGLAKE Festival explores the theme of evolution in various ways, and takes place from August 23 to 31 in Prince Edward County, Ontario. The scenic environment of lakeside farmland, vineyards, unique locations and venues is the backdrop for a varied menu of concerts and events.

The Festival is the brainchild of co-founders and co-directors Johannes Debus and Elissa Lee — the former is the Music Director for the Canadian Opera Company, and the latter a JUNO Award-winning violinist. Together, they formed BIGLAKE Arts, and created a festival for unique and intimate experiences in and around Wellington, in Prince Edward County.

The Evolution festival takes place August 23 to 31, but kicks off weeks earlier, on July 14, with a Concert in the Barn fundraiser and the New Zealand String Quartet. They’ll be performing a program of Gareth Farr: Te Kõanga, Leoš Janáček: String Quartet No. 1 “Kreutzer”, and Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 71 No 3. Edwin County Farms in Picton plays host to the catered event.

Creating A Festival

“I had some dear friends that lived in Wellington County,” recalls Elissa. The connection led to more visits, and they both fell in love with the region. “It was a lot quieter then,” she recalls. “The county has grown immensely.”

As Johannes relates, it was the circumstances of the pandemic that led to some of the more creative programming that the festival is known for. The festival as it exists now grew out of Wellington Water Week, which was held for two years from 2018 to 2019. The town’s picturesque frontage on Lake Ontario led to its current name. In 2021, they were looking to move forward despite ongoing restrictions. “We needed venues to perform outdoors at the time.”

They approached local businesses and property owners. “They’d open their barns and other venues for us,” he says. The supportive environment helped cement the idea of situating a festival in the region on an annual basis. “We both felt that every place had something unique to offer.”

Attending the concerts in various venues makes audience members into explorers. “In Wellington where we feel at home, there’s a wonderful old music hall,” Johannes says. The Hall is an area building with what Johannes calls a “checkered history”, and was revived as a concert hall by BIGLAKE in 2022.

“It’s still a little mysterious,” Elissa says. More work will be done in its ongoing revitalization, with acoustics good enough to warrant the trouble. It’s something of an area secret, known to the locals. “People are super happy that we’re reactivating it,” she says.

At the moment, the raw edges of the space add to its ambience. “It speaks to that idea of popping up in space.” And, also to the concept of Evolution. The music hall was built during the late 1800s at a time when Wellington County was flourishing, and the hall was a centre for the area’s entertainment.

After the first season’s success, once the restrictions were lifted, they reflected on the idea of keeping the spread out over a range of different types of venues.

BIGLAKE 2024: Evolution

The festival’s offerings are eclectic and curated to be performed in a variety of settings.

Programming the festival each year typically begins with the works that they want to present. A Beethoven Marathon, consisting of all the composer’s sonatas for violin and piano spread over three concerts, takes over the Wellington Music Hall on August 25. That’s where Evolutions began.

“If there is one constant in life, it’s that there is evolution,” Johannes says, adding that it’s meant as an inspiration rather than a box to confine curation. “The Beethoven marathon — you see how a composer has evolved through his life,” he adds. “We can personally relate to it.”

The Opening Night’s theme is Evolution Of The Piano with Ilya Poletaev, who’ll be performing on the spinnet, the harpsichord, and the grand piano

“Ilya is a performer who can play all those instruments,” Elissa says. “I met Ilya at a house concert in Toronto.” That was years ago, and the festival invited Ilya to perform Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 2021. Through conversations, they learned that he was also a prolific harpsichordist, and was adept at most historical keyboard instruments. “Ilya is, I think quite unique in that in the world of keyboard players,” she says.

It led to a return invitation to delve into the instrument’s history. “Some of the older stuff is much harder to play on modern instruments,” Elissa notes.

Canadian piano legend Louis Lortie performs a program of Frédéric Chopin on August 30. “We’re absolutely thrilled that he’s coming,” Elise says. “He is also such a versatile artist and musician. It’s a blessing to have him come.”

Lortie has visited the festival before, and performed at one of their fundraisers. Elissa says he too was charmed by the area’s bucolic ambience.

“Festivals do lean much on their environment,” she notes. She says Lortie also appreciated the opportunity to perform in Canada. “I think it’s nice when you’re artistic director and you can decide who you like.”

The venues and music have been matched to create just the right atmosphere. At times, potential venues have approached the festival first, leading to creative thinking on what to present and when. “To bring [audiences] something that makes sense,” Elissa explains.

The not surprisingly popular Musical and Edible Promenade returns on August 24, along with as yet to be announced pop up events involving local chefs and restaurants. “It makes a lot of sense in a small community. We all know each other,” Elissa notes. “It’s about building community. Everyone’s been massively supported.”

As she points out, it’s a different business model than is typical for a music festival.

The Musical and Edible Promenade, which is essentially a walking tour involving food tasting paired with music, takes participants through the town of Wellington. “It’s become staple,” Johannes says. The event involves four mini concerts in undisclosed locations – everything, including the menu, is a mystery until the day of. The festival works with a local chef to curate and coordinate.

It’s for the adventurous minded. “For those who don’t want to sit for two hours,” Elissa points out. “It’s ended up being an elevated dining experience.”

Working each year with the same chef, he’s sent the music first. He takes inspiration from it in creating the menus. “It’s quite fun,” he says. “It’s an annual thing that people have asked for.”

Other Festival Highlights

  • The Art of Time Ensemble’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (July 24) in a BIGLAKE/Base 31 co-production;
  • The HATCH series of concerts, spotlighting emerging talent in ink-still-wet contemporary chamber music;
  • JUNO-award-winning trombonist William Carn and saxophonist Tara Davidson lead their ensemble Carn Davidson 9 in an innovative jazz program on August 24;
  • The Chooi Brothers (Nikki and Timothy) provide the fireworks for Virtuoso Violins on August 26;
  • A Candlelight Concert of Dvorak’s String Sextet and Joachim Raff’s Octet on August 27;
  • Métis fiddler Alex Kusturok and pianist Jeremy Rusu perform in the historical Christ Church of the Mohawks of Tyendinaga on August 28;
  • Saint Saëns’ “Carnaval des animaux” with extra movements by composer William Rowson inspired by animals of the Salish Coast on August 29.

Johannes’ brings the artists of the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio to the festival for an opera gala on closing night, August 31.

  • Find more information, tickets, and passes [HERE].

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