Klopoushak in charge: Chamberfest’s new artistic leader has musical diversity in mind

Carissa Klopoushak.

You’d think Carissa Klopoushak had enough on her plate.

She’s a violinist with the NAC Orchestra. She’s a co-funder of the Ironwood Quartet. She started and remains the artistic director of a music festival in her hometown of Saskatoon, COVID notwithstanding. She’s part of the team behind the Classical Unbound festival in Prince Edward County in the summer and she pursue traditional Ukrainian music to honour her heritage and she plays modern folk in a Ukrainian folk-rock band Tyt i Tam. That’s not to mention the odd recording effort of her own.

And, on top of all that, she’s engaged to be married in the not too distant future.

But, she told ARTSFILE in an interview, her packed schedule hasn’t deterred her from taking on the artistic direction of the world’s largest chamber music festival.

She’s officially been on the job at Chamberfest since Aug. 17, but she’s actually been working since June.

And if COVID-19 has a silver lining, it’s that Klopoushak has had a chance to settle into her new position while many of her other obligations are on hold — save the marriage thing.

“Right now everything is working at a slower pace and there are so many ways in which things are complementary. But I anticipate I am going to be nice and busy. There’s not too much that I’m going to give that’s for sure … maybe sleep.

“But for me personally, at Chamberfest, my role is curatorial and visionary. I have a talented team for a lot of the administration of these ideas.”

She knows she can’t completely escape the paperwork and the meetings, but the job is “wonderful. There is a lot of dreaming and imagining and what if … we put these things together. That is something I really love to do and why I have been involved in the other festivals.”

It helps in an odd way that COVID forced a slowdown in the hectic schedule of music-making.

“The amazing opportunity that was afforded by COVID was (Chamberfest) was able to bring me on board at the end of June to shadow (out-going artistic director) Roman (Borys) and meet people and get a hang of how things work.”

The first official thing she has been involved in is the fall lineup of livestreamed concerts announced this past week.

And “the final crossing of the T’s and dotting of the I’s” has been done by her along with the well-oiled administration of Chamberfest. She tips her cap to Borys for dreaming up the livestreamed concert series and Chamber Chats with important artists conducted by Eric Friesen.

Her other festivals are much smaller. The Ritornello Chamber Music Festival is held over three nights and features traditional chamber presentation and repertoire, along with more contemporary music along with lesser known works. Classical Unbound takes place over four weekends in the dead of summer on wineries in a pastoral setting.

Meanwhile, Chamberfest features about 100 concerts jammed into roughly two weeks in a mix of halls and music, along with a concert series and educational endeavours. It’s a much bigger canvas, a challenge she relishes.

Another thing matters here though. After 25 years, Klopoushak is the first woman to be artistic director. Her appointment is an important statement by the festival and by the Ottawa Chamber Music Society. While it is changing, the field of classical music has been dominated by paternalistic men for many many decades.

She says she “definitely” thinks about the symbolic importance of her appointment. “Representation and diversity within our field is important to me. I will do my best to do more homework in that regard.”

But there is more too — an obligation if you will. “I am a younger woman but I am also white and very Canadian as well as being Ukrainian and I have my privileges too.”

She knows she will have to through a crucible of sorts and she says she will do that “happily because of the other side of this we are going to end up in a place that is more equitable, more diverse with more voices heard … the more the better. It will make us richer.”

She says that reaching a certain percentage of representation “is not my driving motivator … but I think there is so much room for improvement I am excited to get more and more diversity represented.

“That can be through many different channels, not just composers, it can be who we have in the office, who our advisors are.”

First and foremost, she said, she has research to do, but adds that “if I am going for the best and the most innovative, I think that the percentages will work themselves out. The tide has changed. More people now find this important than don’t care.”

Having been connected with the festival for the past 11 years or so, she is also confident that Chamberfest is innovative and interested in presenting diverse artists from different backgrounds.

“Of course, every single organization can do better, but I am looking forward to making that one of my many priorities.”

Chamberfest has always prided itself on being a celebration of the small ensemble, she says.

“That’s something that Roman and I have very much in common. This idea that there is a lot that can fit into the label chamber music very naturally.

“I love folk stuff and I love all kinds of different genres and that’s absolutely” part of the chamber music file.

There is already a close relationship between the NAC Orchestra and Chamberfest. Klopoushak, who has a foot in both camps, says both organizations see her appointment as a wonderful opportunity to deepen the co-operation. But not much will take place until the COVID ice starts to melt. While NACO is waiting for the green light, her playing career waits and there is time to dream.

“I am interested to see what is possible in terms of collaboration and shared resources. A lot of those conversations are still to happen but it will be exciting to see where this might go.”

Meanwhile, for her own sense of work-life balance and intellectual betterment, Klopoushak has made a commitment to herself to wake up every morning to practice her violin and “make music personally.”

She’s not an early riser, but “it doesn’t matter what time of day, it just matters that it is first.”

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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.