Festival Season: Classical music steps out

Written by Nicole Laidler

Summer is the time of year when classical music steps out of the traditional concert hall. This year some of the world’s top talents share their gifts in intimate and sometimes unexpected venues throughout our region. Just hop in the car, and enjoy the sights and sounds of the season.

Bach Festival of Canada (July 6 to 16)

Launched as an experiment in 2010, Exeter’s Bach Festival of Canada is now one of the most anticipated festivals on the summer music calendar. Inspired by the small-town festivals of Europe, this bi-annual event draws internationally-renowned performers and sold-out crowds to the heart of rural Ontario.

“Exeter is in the middle of such beautiful farm country,” says festival founder Gerald Fagan. “We draw audience members from all over Ontario. And the local people are incredibly supportive.”

Spanish pianist Leopoldo Erice

The festival has grown over the years, both in size and in musical scope. This year’s Bach Festival begins with Just Between Friends, an evening of Broadway classics performed by bass-baritone John Avey and pianist Marlene Fagan. It’s a return performance for the musical pair, who Gerald Fagan calls “one of our most popular duos.”

Also back this year are Spanish pianist Leopoldo Erice (July 7), and renowned London-born violinist Lara St. John (July 9). “Lara was the first major artist we featured when we began the festival, so we thought it was time to bring her back,” notes Fagan. This year, St. John returns with American jazz pianist Matt Herskowitz. Fagan expects the program to include Bach and beyond. “They are incredible talents and it will be amazing,” he says.

Canadian fiddle sensation Shane Cook makes his festival debut July 14, in a concert with a home-town twist. Shane’s first full-sized fiddle was purchased from Exeter native Gerry Smith, Fagan explains. A champion-fiddler in his own right, Smith will join Cook and his troupe for this special musical reunion.

The Bach Festival wraps up July 16 with an afternoon concert that is sure to shake the rafters at Exeter’s South Huron Recreational Centre. More than 200 singers and musicians will be joined by four soloists —bass John Avey, contralto Anita Krause, soprano Leslie Fagan, and tenor Colin Ainsworth — for a celebration of Canada 150. To mark the occasion, the Festival commissioned new works by Ontario composers Jeff Smallman (Hensall), Stephanie Martin (Toronto), Elsie LeTourneau (Ottawa), and Matthew Emery (London). “I think we don’t perform enough Canadian music, so this was something that was very important to me,” says Fagan.

Stratford Summer Music (July 17 to August 27)

After seventeen years at the helm of Stratford Summer Music, John Miller recently announced that he’s bidding the festival he founded a fond farewell at the end of the summer. “2017 is a good time to pass the baton to another artistic leader,” Miller says. “Our festival is in great shape with the finest Canadian and world musicians eager to appear here, with our finances solid… and with our community support vibrant and substantial.”

Buffy Sainte-Marie

But before Miller takes his final bow, he is looking forward to presenting more than six weeks of musical programming, with a special focus on Canada in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the country.

First Nations music icon Buffy Sainte-Marie performs at the festival for the first time, on August 7. Her concert at The Avondale is just one of several events that celebrate the richness of First Nations and Inuit culture as part of the festival’s sesquicentennial summer.

The golden age of Canada’s big bands will also be celebrated when Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians take to the stage of the Best Western Plus Arden Park Hotel August 8 and 9, with dance classes called Brush UP Your Fox Trot available one hour before each concert, to help get the party started.

Those are just two highlights on a jam-packed musical calendar that includes plenty of free events, formal concerts, informal cabarets, lectures, a vocal academy and a school of rawk.

About the author

Nicole Laidler

Nicole Laidler is a former classical musician who has been writing about London's cultural scene for more than a decade. To see what else she's been up to, visit