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INTERVIEW | James Campbell Talks About Four Decades At The Helm Of Festival Of The Sound

By Anya Wassenberg on July 8, 2024

L: Festival of the Sound Artistic Director James Campbell (Photo courtesy of the artist); the FOTS headquarters in Parry Sound (Photo courtesy of FOTS)
L: Festival of the Sound Artistic Director James Campbell (Photo courtesy of the artist); the FOTS headquarters in Parry Sound (Photo courtesy of FOTS)

A busy clarinetist with a career as a chamber musician and soloist, a university professor for more than 30 years, James Campbell is also the Artistic Director of the Festival of the Sound. That’s a role that he’s held for four decades now, with no sign of slowing down.

This year, the Festival runs from July 19 to August 3. We spoke to the busy musician and AD about what’s kept him going for 40 years.

The Festival of the Sound

Back in the summer of 1979, pianist Anton Kuerti, at the time a professor at the University of Toronto, followed a Canadian tradition, and bought a summer home in Parry Sound. He organized three concerts in the area. As James Campbell tells the story, Kuerti told friends and colleagues about his idea, and invited anyone who wanted to help create the new festival to his cottage. Dozens of people showed up, and the Festival of the Sounds was born.

That included a Board of Directors and installing Kuerti as founding Artistic Director of the non-profit corporation.

Officially launched in the summer of 1980, it became Canada’s first yearly summer classical music festival with an international lineup. In 1984, Kuerti asked clarinetist James Campbell, who was already working with the organization, to program the Festival that year.

“I’d never done anything like that before,” James recalls. But, it wasn’t long before he caught on to the appeal. “I got bitten by the bug.” The invitation was repeated the following year, and after a discussion with the Board of Directors, the decision was made to let Campbell take over the role in 1985.

“I guess the addiction stayed,” he laughs.

So much so, in fact, that when he was offered a position he couldn’t refuse — to teach clarinet at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music — he didn’t give up the role at the Festival of the Sound. He says he organized his life and other responsibilities around his schedule in Bloomington. “For those 31 years of teaching in Indiana, I basically had three jobs,” he says. That includes an international performing career, along with the other two major responsibilities.

“Looking back, I think, was I nuts?”

It’s not that he hasn’t had the opportunity to move on. Campbell reports that about 20 years ago, he received several offers to assume the role of Dean at various institutions, along with a smattering of offers to lead other music festivals. He decided to stay put.

James retired in 2019, and moved back to Canada after the pandemic. What made it worthwhile for so long? He cites a supportive local community, and a board of directors that is enthusiastic and involved.

“It made it fun,” he says. Naturally, there were a few ups and downs along the way to establishing an organization that worked, but a focus on the Festival as something that benefits the community resulted in a dedicated team that has been renewed over the years.

“That really makes all the difference.”

Working with community members and businesses is key. “I was raised in a small town, so I understand how a smaller place can work,” he says. “It’s based on community.”

Festival of the Sound Artistic Director James Campbell (Photo courtesy of the artist)
Festival of the Sound Artistic Director James Campbell (Photo courtesy of the artist)

The Music

As for the programming, the Festival lineup routinely including jazz and performers in other genres, but it’s main focus has been unwaveringly on classical music. “Chamber music, that’s really the heart and soul of it,” he says. James reports that he’s never had to argue that point. “They make it fun for me. I’ve been allowed to make mistakes. I’m still just as excited about it as I was all those years ago.”

A few landmarks of the last 40 years include:

  • Performers like Pinchas Zukerman, Martin Beaver, James Ehnes, Yo-Yo Ma, and Denis Brott;
  • Growth from a few concerts in a high school gym to a full-fledged Festival spread over more than two weeks;
  • Construction of the Charles W. Stockey Centre for the Performing Arts in 2003;
  • A home at the historic CP station, including a performing space;
  • Numerous awards, including a Lieutenant Governor’s Award for the Arts in 2003, and Top 100 award from Festival and Events Ontario for four consecutive years;
  • A joint CBC/BBC documentary that aired in both countries.

At the heart of the Festival is a true devotion to the music. “You realize you’re working for something — you’re working for music.” Egos are left at the door, in other words. “I think that’s why the Festival of the Sound has been around for so many years.”

“Our present board is amazing,” he says, noting that board members roll up their sleeves to cook, drive, set up chairs — whatever is needed.

“The ego gets knocked out of you after a while, if you’re at all aware,” he says.

It might be off the beaten path of the usual touring circuit, but Parry Sound is musically rich nonetheless. “Parry Sound itself really punches way above its weight musically,” James notes, pointing out local string ensembles, choirs, and other organizations.

“I’ve probably programmed 1,700 or 1,800 concerts so far,” he says. “What’s not to like to get to program great music in a great concert hall, for people who really want to listen to it?”

There’s a real artistic freedom that comes if you’re fuelled by passion for the art form. “If you’re aware, you very quickly learn it’s not about you. You’re at the service of the music and the audience.”

He still gets excited at that moment in the concert hall when the audience is hushed, and you can hear a pin drop. It’s something he’s experienced as a performer, a programmer, and an audience member. “When everyone is focused on what’s going on stage, when I’m playing, and you feel that coming from the audience, you think, I really need to bring my A game,” he laughs. It’s when the music is really reaching the audience.

“At the end of the day, that kind of makes it worth it, when that moment happens, and the connection’s made. It makes life a little better.”

As for the future? The Festival of the Sound has dealt with the same issues as every other arts organization in the classical music sector, from COVID to aging audiences. He says they spend as much effort on building the audience as they do on managing current activities and initiatives.

“I’m pretty optimistic about everything,” he says. “Let’s think about the next 20 years, 30 years.”

  • Find out about this year’s Festival of the Sound, featuring chamber music, opera, and the popular blues cruise, running July 19 to August 3, 2024, [HERE].

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