Chamberfest: James Campbell and the sound of a festival at 40

James Campbell on the clarinet. Photo Andre Gagne

When we spoke James Campbell had just come in from a cool dip in a lake near Georgian Bay. It’s one of the perks available to the artistic director of the now 40 year old Festival of the Sound in the hometown of No. 4, Bobby Orr — Parry Sound, Ontario.

The fact that the festival has lasted this long in a small Ontario city is a testament to tenacity of the local people and of Campbell himself.

Anton Kuerti founded the festival. He had purchased a summer place in the area and wanted to play music there.

The story goes that Kuerti held a concert in the town and asked from the stage: ‘If anybody’s interested in getting a festival going up here, there’s a meeting at my cottage.’ About 50 people showed up, Campbell said.

A strong beginning. Campbell took over in 1985.

“He asked me to come up as a clarinet player.” This was one of the stops in Campbell’s burgeoning performing career.

“Then he asked if I would take a year because he wanted to take a year off. And then he said ‘Why don’t you do another year’. Eventually he just said, ‘If you really want to do the job, it’s yours’.” Campbell said why not and remains grateful to Kuerti for suggesting it.

“It totally sucked me in but it has opened up a whole world that I wouldn’t have known otherwise.”

The highs are high and the lows are low. There are challenges, but he looks back on his journey and finds it amazing.

“Why am I doing  this? I generally say, ‘Because I like it’. It’s helping making things happen and watching the artists grow.”

Parry Sound’s population is either 6,000 or 6,500, which is a matter of some discussion in the community.

“Understanding the significance of a small city, which is basically a hockey town, having a core to keep a classical music festival going. They are very insistent on keeping the festival as a classical music event.”

That determination was behind the building of a $12.5 million performance hall called the Charles W. Stockey Centre for the Performing Arts in 2003. The acoustics were designed for a string quartet but it can also host a rock band.

Campbell considers it one of the best halls he’s played in.

The base audience has always been built on cottagers from Toronto. The locals are really busy in the summer working to make their annual salaries, he said. “But they work on the festival in the winter.”

There is a massive economic impact for Parry Sound from the festival. Like any smart arts administrator today, Campbell is armed with stats. The three week long festival brings about $3 million into the local community every year. (This year it runs from July 19 to Aug. 10.) The festival is the second biggest economic engine in the community behind only a cruise boat called the Island Queen.

“We don’t make a profit but we do cause money to be made in the community. This town knows that now. That’s why we are still here.” And will continue to be here for the foreseeable, he said. “There aren’t any life-threatening challenges.”

This is the battle that will be fought again and again, but as Campbell notes classical music has been around for centuries and he believes it will carry on because “people have an instinct for quality.”

He says Tourism Ontario should take notice of what is happening in parry Sound because the festival has never received any of this provincial money. They even elect Conservative politicians. These days the area is represented by Tony Clement.

The Festival of the Sound is preparing for more cuts to arts funding by the Ford government in Ontario. “We have already been told that next year ‘You’re getting cut’. But at least we are getting warned well in advance.”

His advice to other arts organizations is to hang in there and be responsible to the music and the budget. And listen to his wife who once told him not to go bigger but to go deeper into the music.

There have been many highs but one of the highest was a show that the festival put together for 2017 and performed at Chamberfest last season called Sounding Thunder about the life of the decorated First World War hero and Indigenous leader Francis Pegahmagabow. He says it is developing and there are grants being applied for to produce it again.

The two festivals have a strong relationship in programming and in offering each other advice on this, that and the other thing. As well the Gryphon Trio often plays in the Sound and Campbell is often at Chamberfest. In fact he’ll play two concerts in Ottawa on July 28.

“That’s one of the most significant things we have done in 40 years. It covered all the base. It was a local hero.” It also helped establish a strong relationship between the festival and the nearby Wasauksing First Nation.

Another high is sitting in a concert when the musician is in a zone and the audience is there too, “to me that’s actually the reason I do this. It all comes down to that moment when the music really happens.”

“The lows are when I want to crawl under my chair and usually connected to money or when the program runs too long or some of the musicians decide to talk for 10 minutes.”

He is thankful for a board of directors that has given him artistic freedom.

His playing career is busy. He does about 100 concerts a year as well as teaching at Indiana University’s prestigious Jacobs School of Music. He has just stepped down from there after 31 years.

He says he has managed these three demanding careers by putting on a different hat and becoming a different person. “Sometimes it all gets mixed up and I stop and have a scotch.”

His grandmother taught him how to play the piano. Then he went to junior high school and joined the band. He was handed a clarinet and that started a lifelong relationship. He used to play the saxophone and a lot of jazz. These days he finds he is getting back into jazz.

Campbell sees a strong comparison between jazz and chamber music. “Everything is based on listening, but in jazz you get to choose your notes. In chamber music you play the notes that Brahms wrote and you play his musical language.”

“When you are playing jazz you are trying to find your own style, but everything else is very close.”

There is a jazz element at Festival of the Sound as there is at Chamberfest in Ottawa.

“I think it’s a very natural marriage. In the pop world, a classic lasts about a year. In pop music things pass very quickly. But if you look at a piece of Mozart for example the clarinet quintet (he’s played the piece more than 150 times). Multiply that hundreds or thousands of times over the centuries. Every time I play it I am still excited about playing it.”

He says he told his board at a meeting one cold January night, “I wonder what Mozart would think, if he thought that 200 some years later a group of people would be sitting around a church basement in Canada, in the middle of winter trying to figure out ways to raise money so that other people could hear his music. That’s the amazing thing of it.”

That, in essence, he said, is why Parry Sound can keep a festival of classical music going for 40 years. As for Campbell, even though he is succession planning, he’ll be there for season 41 and beyond.

Chamberfest presents

Swiss Piano Trio, James Campbell and Friends
Where: National Gallery of Canada
When: July 28 at 1 p.m.
Tickets and information:

Festival of the Sound at 40
Where: National Gallery of Canada
When: July 28 at 2:45 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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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.