Chamberfest 2017: An eclectic lineup showcases musical reach of festival

Seen here on board the Kapitan Khlebnikov, Danny Michel brings his musical take on Canada's north to Chamberfest 2017. Photo: Aaron Tang

Every year putting together the performers coming to the world’s largest chamber music festival is puzzled out by artistic director Roman Borys. Much depends on squaring the availability of artists with ensuring Chamberfest stays true to its mandate.

Case in point Chamberfest 2017, which runs from July 22 to Aug. 4. It is an eclectic, exciting, entertaining and even somewhat eccentric mix of cutting edge new work and more traditional forms. And given the 150th birthday of Confederation there is a clear nod to Canadian music.

“Our general theme this year is Chamberfest. Our main mission this year, recognizing that there will be a summer full of entertainment, is to treat this as a showcase opportunity for everything. And it is tethered to chamber music.

“Ultimately I want to send the message that we are never going to forget who we are and where we came from. Or how it is we began this exploration of the small (musical) ensemble.”

Stephen Hough. Photo: Sim Cannety Clarke

“This summer we’re trying to be the best that we can be.” That includes a more concentrated and logical schedule, he says, in which the main Chamberfest day will begin at about 1 p.m. in the afternoon and performances will be paired with the chats that explore the method behind the music. These chats will feature, for example, Robert Harris discoursing on significant Canadians and their impact on the wider musical world.

The festival is also now shaped in the context of a growing three-pronged presence in the community for the Ottawa Chamber Music Society with an evolving fall/winter/spring concert series and a growing music education component Listen Up that is penetrating the city’s schools.

One real highlight for Borys will be the Chamberfest debut of the talented, and outspoken, British pianist Stephen Hough (July 23). He will play Beethoven, Schumann and a take on Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune.

“He’s amazing. I was in New York in January and I heard him play the Emperor (Concerto) with the New York Phil. He’s also an incredible speaker. He writes for the London papers. He has a very interesting mind.”

Another is the return of the Miró Quartet (July 25) with their take on the music of Antonin Dvořák.

 The young Viennese violin master Julian Rachlin will lead a performance of The Four Seasons (Aug. 1) by Vivaldi, paired with a performance of Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. Borys believes patrons will be astounded by Rachlin. “He’s got this killer arrangement of the Piazzolla for solo violin and chamber orchestra that is incredibly virtuosic.”

The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega.

One of the world’s very best, the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, returns to Ottawa for the first time in 20 years (July 28). It is always tricky trying to book this choir, Borys says, because the 35 singers are also students at Cambridge and they tour in between semesters.

All the droogies will likely be lining up for a look at the movie music chosen by the late Stanley Kubrick.

His films featured symphonic soundtracks. Clockwork Orange blared Ludwig Van and Rossini. Barry Lyndon was festooned in Baroque with some Mozart and Schubert tossed in along with traditional Celtic songs. And 2001: A Space Odyssey offered Johan (Blue Danube) and Richard Strauss (Zarathustra) and the avant-garde Hungarian György Ligeti whose Atmospheres added a distinct futuristic tone. Kubrick’s executive producer, Jan Harlan, will explain the choices the great director made. And the next night pianist Heinrich Alpers,  the Gryphon Trio, the Cecilia String Quartet, the Penderecki String Quartet, plays some of the music. (July 30).

And the American one-man band Kishi Bashi teams up with the Rolston String Quartet to push some musical boundaries together as they blend classical with pop (July 28).
The Canadian connection to this year’s festival is wide ranging.

Danny Michel will showcase his musical take on an 18-day journey he took last summer across the Canadian Arctic aboard a Russian icebreaker called the Kapitan Khlebnikov (July 23). The result is a musical “love letter” to the north, his travels, and the icebreaker itself, with brass and string accompaniment written by Rob Carli, ” who is somebody that people might recognize. He’s a great clarinet and saxophone player,” Borys says.

The Canadian National Brass Project is back. Led by horn player James Sommerville, this high-calibre pick-up band made up of the country’s best brass players will play some classics along with a new piece by Scott Good, whose creations made a splash at last year’s “conjunction” workshop.

The Indigenous cellist Cris Derksen (Aug. 1), who was nominated for a Juno in 2016, blends her classical training with her aboriginal heritage in an electric show that also features a hoop dancer.

The Art of Time reprises their interpretation of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with singers Craig Northey (The Odds), Andy Maize (Skydiggers), and British pop singer Wesley Stace, (Aug. 4). Boris says this show, when it was staged about four years ago, was groundbreaking in that it filled Dominion Chalmers United Church and solidified the audience for the concert series.

Finally there’s some social commentary. Along with the environmentalism expressed in the Danny Michel concert is Sweat which features five soloists singing in English, Cantonese, Ukrainian, and Hungarian. The show by The Bicycle Opera Project opens a window into the hard world of a sweat shop that makes the clothes we wear.

The fate of Syrian refugees will be on view in Home Within: The Syrian Experience (Aug. 3). Home Within pairs Syrian composer and clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and work by the Syrian-Armenian visual artist Kevork Mourad.

This year’s event does not have a festival within the larger schedule that concentrates on the music of a specific composer. But Borys says that will return in 2018 when the works of J.S. Bach will be examined in great depth centred on more concerts by Ottawa’s Angela Hewitt in her Bach Odyssey.

“I am thinking very much about how we will be getting back into a major exploration of (his) music.”

The festival offers a wide range of ticket options all of which are explained at, along with a schedule of performances and performers.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.