The opening concert of this year's Festival of the Sound was definitely a gala celebration, even though not officially billed as such.
The programme was entitled "Our Paradise: Canada at 150." Under that umbrella description, the diverse and entertaining evening gathered together the music of the First Nations, traditional country fiddling, jazz, classical, folk, popular song and several works originally commissioned by the Festival of the Sound in earlier years.
The whole evening became a celebration of Canada and of the Parry Sound areas, of the lands, the peoples, the artists, and the art they have brought with them to their lives in this area.
To fit all of that into a single concert sounds implausible, not to say impossible, but James Campbell (Artistic Director) has a long history of dreaming up creative programming that would occur to no one else, and then bringing it vividly to life before us.
The concert opened with a slide show of Georgian Bay sunsets in a darkened hall, a cry of a loon and ripples of water on the sound system, and then the appearance of the Wasauksing Little Spirit Singers, a group of children and young adults presenting two traditional songs of the Anishinabek. These were a song of welcome, and a song honouring the assembled people. The clear voices and diction of these singers were impressive.
From there we moved on to Strings Across the Sky. This is an educational programme that has travelling to First Nations communities across Northern Canada for over a decade, teaching and restoring the tradition of fiddle playing among children. They've appeared at the Festival for a number of years now, with children from the local First Nations. I always enjoy watching these young beginners focusing so earnestly on their playing. And, remembering my own early struggles with trying to tame a violin, I'm impressed at how well they play after just a week of experience! Strings Across the Sky is always a delight.
The New Zealand String Quartet took the stage next in a set of Three Ojibway Songs, led on the drum by the composer, Richard Mascall, Singing Beaver on Water.
From there, the quartet leaped with equal aplomb into a set of Canadian country fiddle tunes. All this was a far cry from their core classical repertoire (see below), but they were plainly enjoying the diversity of the experience.
The European folk traditions that have moved into Canadian music were represented by four of the Six Studies in English Folk Song by Vaughan Williams. I first heard this work at my very first Festival, back in 1994 or 1995, and it made an immediate impression. What I didn't know at the time is that none of the tunes used are genuine folk songs. Vaughan Williams created a whole set of melodies in folk style. James Campbell on clarinet and the quartet played these miniatures with a great deal of affection.
Parry Sound residents were represented by pianist Carolyn Maule. She's most often heard as an accompanist (and a very fine member of that specialized elite group!) but tonight she appeared as a solo artist, playing Mendelssohn's energetic Andante and Rondo Capriccioso to sustained applause.
The first half of the concert ended up with The Goal by Eric Robertson, originally commissioned by the Festival for the opening of the Stockey Centre in 2003. This work for the Festival Winds commemorates the famous Stanley-Cup-winning goal scored by Parry Sound native Bobby Orr for the Boston Bruins back in 1970. The spoken narration was provided with great aplomb by the well-loved local music teacher, Jim Ferris.
A double Festival commission opened the second half. How can one piece be two commissions? In 1989, Srul Irving Glick undertook a commission to work on a composition in a room in the Parry Sound High School (at the time the Festival's main venue). Here, audience members could come in to watch him at work. Glick would even bounce ideas off his visitors, asking which of two possible chords sounded better to them and the like. The resulting work was workshopped and performed that season, and has been revived a couple of times since -- with good reason.
For this performance, the Festival commissioned artist Alan Stein, a long-time friend and former president of the Festival, to create a series of paintings inspired by the music, and these were shown on the overhead screen during the performance. Images at Nightfall, Georgian Bay is a sequence of songs for soprano, piano, and clarinet. Soprano Chantal Grybas sang with great purity of tone in all parts of the range. Pianist Leopoldo Erice and James Campbell on clarinet gave an evocative account of their parts, ending with the haunting sound of the clarinet fading into silence while pointed downwards inside the piano case.
The New Zealand Quartet then came back to represent the Festival's core mission of classical chamber music with two movements of Beethoven's Quartet Op. 18, No. 3, played with their customary fervour and precision.
The long-standing jazz tradition of the Festival next came to the stage with a trio performing Canadian selections: Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell and Swinging Shepherd Blues by Moe Koffman. Then resident pianist, trumpeter, vocalist and (not least) comic genius Guy Few walked on, draped in a Canadian flag, to lead the audience in singing Bobby Gimby's catchy Centennial song, CA-NA-DA. There's a tune that wears well -- it's still as much fun in a singalong as ever.
The last entry in a full evening of diverse music was the Parry Sound Community Singers. They performed the last of the commissioned works, also written for the 2003 opening of the Stockey Centre: Paradise: A Song for Georgian Bay by Parry Sound-born composer Eleanor Daley. Daley herself led the choir in singing this short but evocative work.
The entire array of performers then crowded onto the stage and the audience stood to round off the evening with a heartfelt O Canada.
A dash of patriotism, a sense of history, a panorama of cultures, a kaleidoscope of music, a tribute to the people who have built the foundations on which Parry Sound rests today, the Festival's opening concert was all these things. It made for a long evening, but also a rich and rewarding one.
I now have to take a break from the Festival for the remainder of Week One to
go elsewhere. These blog posts will resume in August for the final two weeks.