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The best of summer's music festivals

The warm weather's here, and Canada is about to become a playground for every kind of music lover. Can't keep up with it all? Check out this coast-to-coast guide to the festivals you need to know about.




Stratford Summer Music
Stratford, Ont. 1-800-567-1600
July 25 to Aug. 5

Classical music has been an up-and-down affair over the years in Stratford, Ont. -- the home of Canada's largest annual theatre blowout, the Stratford Festival. From the festival's beginnings in the 1950s, music played a role, but the festival's priority was always theatre, and music eventually languished.

Undaunted by this history, concert-producer John Miller and a band of local citizens have decided to relaunch Stratford Summer Music this year. They've put together a modest but diverse two-week series, in Victorian halls and churches -- and even on the town's Avon River.

Canadian music and musicians will reign supreme, from a free outdoor concert by the National Youth Orchestra (July 29) to string quartets by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, played by Montreal's Molinari Quartet (Aug. 2-5). The Vancouver Chamber Choir will pay a visit (July 26-29), a community group from Sackville, N.B., will perform Schafer's biblical pageant Jonah (July 29-30), and late-night jazz will be featured in restaurants. As well, there will be discussions of music, from a high-minded lecture series named for the late composer Harry Somers (July 27, Aug. 3) to a flaky-sounding Listening Walkabout -- "a serious exploration of our urban environment," with Schafer himself (July 29).

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Banff International String Quartet Competition
Banff, Alta. 403-762-6100
Aug. 28 to Sept. 2

Each summer the scenic town of Banff, Alta., is taken over by a major arts festival. But every third year (including this one), Banff holds special significance for chamber-music devotees, thanks to the Banff International String Quartet Competition.

This year, 10 string quartets from the United States, Europe, Japan and Canada will make the trek up to Banff for one of Canada's most prestigious music contests.

Organizers seem eager to cultivate an audience-friendly, festive atmosphere at the competition. Visitors who wish to stay the whole week can choose between the "Stradivari" and the "Guarneri" accommodation packages, including tickets to all 14 competition events.

But be forewarned: This isn't chamber music for the faint of heart. Since the competition was launched in 1983, many winners -- including Canada's own St. Lawrence Quartet -- have gone on to international success. This year, the young quartets will be competing for $45,000 in prize money and a big career boost, so the pressure will be intense.

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Festival de Lanaudière
Joliette, Que. 1-800-561-4343
June 26 to Aug. 5

The Festival de Lanaudière is the biggest (mostly) classical festival in Canada, and it's not ashamed to flaunt its size. With a budget of $2.2-million, it's the only classical fest in the land able to present a slew of big professional ensembles. This year, Lanaudière is playing host to the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM), Montreal's Orchestre Métropolitain, the orchestras of Quebec City and Laval, and Toronto's Tafelmusik Orchestra.

It all began back in 1977, as the dream of Father Fernand Lindsay, with three concerts by the OSM. Today, the festival sprawls over a dozen towns in the Lanaudière region (about a 40-minute drive northwest of Montreal).

The big concerts take place at the 2,000-seat Amphithéàtre on the outskirts of Joliette, but there are plenty of more intimate venues. Audiences can hear Toronto's Anton Kuerti play five Beethoven sonatas in the elegant, twin-spired church of Lavaltrie (June 26); or England's Lindsay String Quartet play six Haydn quartets in the church at L'Assomption (July 16).

In addition to standard classical fare, this year's festival offers some obscure repertoire: Zemlinsky's The Little Siren, played by the OSM (June 30), and a Requiem by Von Suppe, performed by the Orchestre Métropolitain with two choirs and soloists (July 13). The strangest event of all may well be Finnish composer Yoav Talmi's Cantus Arcticus, subtitled "a concerto for birds and orchestra" (July 14).

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Elora Festival
Elora, Ont. 519-846-0331
July 13 to 29

Nestled in the countryside just north of Guelph, Ont., is the charming town of Elora. This old mill-town has no real concert hall, but it does have some fine churches, as well as a large shed used for road salt in the winter and music in the summer. Elora's festival hasn't generally featured marquee names -- just good, solid, musicianship.

This year's roster is a bevy of fine artists: violinist Ruth Fazel, oboist James Mason, trumpeter Larry Larson, organist Michael Bloss and the Anagnoson-Kinton piano duo, to name just a few.

But the jewel in the crown is the festival's own choir, the Elora Festival Singers. Under the baton of Noel Edison, the chamber choir will sing everything from Vivaldi's Gloria (July 15) to The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore, a modern "madrigal fable" by Gian Carlo Menotti (July 18). For the grand opening, the singers will be joined by Toronto's Exultate Chamber Choir, for Handel's Israel in Egypt (July 13).

The Elora Festival Singers will be accompanied by the Paragon Harp Duo (July 25), in a program that will include Hesperides, recently penned by Edmonton composer Malcolm Forsyth. Also unique is a chamber concert choreographed by David Earle that makes use of music by three 20th-century composers: Penderecki, Martinu and Prokofiev (July 19).

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Vancouver Chamber Music Festival
July 26 to Aug. 3 604-602-0363

Chamber-music promoter Leila Getz chose an auspicious year to launch her summer concerts -- 1986, coinciding with Vancouver's Expo.

Both locals and tourists snapped up the tickets.

Today, the festival still averages 85- to 90-per-cent attendance. Most concerts take place at Crofton House School, a few kilometres from downtown, where an informal atmosphere is cultivated and concertgoers can also enjoy a picnic on the lawn.

Getz is proud of her mix-and-match programming, which offers more variety than a typical chamber concert.

For example, the opening concert (July 26) begins with an unusual new work for electric guitar and string quartet (performed by composer Steve Mackey and the Borromeo String Quartet) followed by a Mozart quintet and a Dvorak piano trio. Another program (Aug. 4) features quintets by Berg and Dohnanyi, as well as an intriguing new piece by Omar Daniel for string quartet, harp and percussion. This piece was commissioned by Vancouver percussionist Salvador Ferreras, who will play in this concert.

New this year is a free family concert at Arts Umbrella on Granville Island (Aug. 1), including an instrument "petting zoo," where children can try out musical instruments.

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The Best of the Rest

  • Lamèque International Baroque Music Festival, Lamèque, N.B., July 27-July 29. Bernard Labadie, Suzie LeBlanc, Matthew White, Washington McClain, Sylvain Bergeron and others. 1-800-320-2276 or 506-344-5846,
  • Le Festival International du Domaine Forget, Saint-Irénée, Que., June 23-Aug. 25. Les Violons du Roy, Trio Hoebig, James Sommerville, Douglas McNabney, Denise Djokic, Richard Raymond and others. 1-888-336-7438,
  • Orford Festival, Orford, Que., June 6-Aug. 25. Sherbrooke Symphony Orchestra, Arthur-Leblanc Quartet, Molinari Quartet, Trio Hochelaga, Menahem Pressler, Anton Kuerti, André Laplante and others. 819-843-3981,
  • Montreal Chamber Music Festival, Montreal, June 2-16. Denis Brott, Marc-André Hamelin, James Ehnes, Douglas MacNabney, the Borromeo Quartet and others. 514-489-7444,
  • Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival, Ottawa, July 21-Aug. 4. Emerson String Quartet, Beaux Arts Trio, Philharmonia Quartett Berlin, Louis Lortie, Philippe Entremont, Martin Beaver, The Gryphon Trio, Daniel Taylor, St. Lawrence String Quartet and others. 613-234-8008,
  • Festival of the Sound, Parry Sound, Ont., July 20-Aug. 12. Elmer Iseler Singers, Anton Kuerti, Martin Beaver, James Sommerville, Annalee Patipatanakoon, Roman Borys, Jasper Wood and others. 705-746-2410,
  • Enbridge Symphony Under the Sky, Edmonton, Aug. 30-Sept. 3. Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and guest artists. 780-428-1108,
  • Vancouver Early Music Festival, Vancouver, July 22-Aug. 6. Ellen Hargis, Robert Barto, Amir Koushkani, Timothy Haig, Elin Soderstrom, Olivier Fortin and others. 604-732-1610,

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Festival International de Jazz de Montréal
June 28 to July 8

Simply put, there's nothing else like it in Canada. For suitable comparisons, try Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Carnival in Rio. At least that's what FIJM, which knows something about marketing and has a budget of more than $10-million, wants you to think.

As has been noted many times before, the emphasis here is on the word "festival." The word "jazz" comes second, at times a distant second -- as distant as Prince, who is one of FIJM's headliners this year in a Place des Arts series that also includes Diana Krall, Cesaria Evora, John McLaughlin, Wynton Marsalis with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Ibrahim Ferrer, George Benson, Joao Gilberto and Oscar Peterson.

That's just for starters. FIJM, now in its 22nd year, will have eight downtown theatres and clubs in operation, offering a dozen different concert series nightly. Among them: Jazz Europa, devoted to Italian jazz, and "Invitation," which will split nine evenings between Michael Brecker and Roy Hargrove, each with his own guests.

If the "jazz" is indoors, the "festival" is outside on the streets surrounding Place des Arts, where blues, zydeco, dixieland, world music and pop artists will appear in more than 25 free concerts, noon to midnight, on a dozen stages.

All this, and there's still room for two independent parallel festivals. One, the OFF Festival de Jazz, promises Montreal musicians at the Lion d'Or, Alizé and Cheval Blanc. The other, the Festival Popolo, offers avant-garde jazz and free improvisation at the Casa del Popolo.

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Vancouver International Jazz Festival
June 22 to July 1

Here's the proverbial thinking fan's festival. Yes, that's U.S. country-pop songbird Emmylou Harris at the Orpheum Theatre and Saskatoon blues-rockers Wide Mouth Mason at the Commodore.

And, true enough, the festival has its share of marquee jazzers in its 16th year -- Terence Blanchard, Roy Hargrove, John Pizzarelli, Joshua Redman, John Scofield at the Vogue Theatre -- along with the world beat and "groove" artists that are now jazzfest prerequisites.

The real emphasis here, however, is on the most creative of contemporary jazz, with a strong presence from the European scene and a central role for several of the city's own leading lights.

Typical of the programming that has brought Vancouver such a high profile in the international jazz media, the festival has given a place of honour this year to Barry Guy's New Orchestra, a multinational tentet that will break down into smaller units for eight concerts over three days.

The festival has booked several other like-minded European and American improvisers, including Tim Berne, Benoît Delbecq, Dave Douglas, Ellery Eskelin, Barre Phillips and Louis Sclavis, each of whom will perform their own ensembles and in a variety of mixed-and-matched combinations.

Elsewhere around Vancouver, there are three festivals within the festival, including an easy-going first weekend of concerts on Water Street in Gastown and an all-Canadian Canada Day on Granville Island.

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Du Maurier Downtown Jazz
June 22 to July 1

Once a contender for the Big Three -- after Montreal and Vancouver -- Downtown Jazz has been slipping into the rest of the pack in recent years. Its well-publicized funding problems in 2000 have hurt, but they don't account for a longer history of organizational inertia and empty promotional bravado.

Two long-time affiliates, the Harbourfront Centre and the Corporation of Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall, have cast their lot with the rival JVC Jazz Festival this year.

That leaves Downtown Jazz to use a 1,000-seat tent on Nathan Phillips Square for evening concerts by Dee Dee Bridgewater, Terence Blanchard with Cassandra Wilson, the trio Medeski, Martin & Wood, Roy Hargrove, Joshua Redman, Chick Corea, Bebel Gilberto and Nicholas Payton, as well as for free shows earlier in the day by the Rob McConnell Tentet, Dave McMurdo Jazz Orchestra, Chris Potter, Paris Washboard and others.

Off-site, John Scofield (at the Guvernment) and Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (Hummingbird Centre) complete what is an impressive top line of major-label bookings.

The remaining roster in 32 clubs (down from 47 in 2000) and on an outdoor, University Avenue stage on the final weekend is flatly unimaginative, however, and undermines the festival's strength over the past 15 years -- specifically, its willingness to offer a balanced program of jazz in all of its permutations, archaic to avant-garde.

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The Best of the Rest
June 22 to July 1

The following events, listed in chronological order with a sampling of headline artists.

  • Barrie Jazz and Blues Festival, Barrie, Ont., June 11-17. Kevin Breit and Sisters Euclid, Carlos del Junco, Bill King's Saturday Night Fish Fry.
  • Jazz Winnipeg 2001, June 15-23. Jane Bunnett, Olu Dara, Buddy Guy, John Pizzarelli.
  • JVC Jazz Festival, Toronto, June 15-24. Brad Mehldau, Jane Monheit, Oscar Peterson, Pharoah Sanders.
  • Jazz City International Jazz Festival, Edmonton, June 22-July 1. Buddy Guy, Irakere, Steve Lacy, Joshua Redman.
  • Jazz Festival-Calgary, June 22-July 1. Roy Hargrove, Irakere, Steve Lacy, Joshua Redman.
  • SaskTel Saskatchewan Jazz Festival, Saskatoon, June 22-July 1. Susie Arioli, Pierre Dorge, Buddy Guy, John Pizzarelli.
  • JazzFest International 2001, Victoria, June 22-July 1. Roy Hargrove, Irakere, John Pizzarelli, Joshua Redman.
  • Downtown Oakville Jazz Festival, Oakville, Ont., July 6-7. Jane Bunnett, Mark Eisenman, Joe Sealy.
  • Atlantic Jazz Festival, Halifax, July 6-14. Susie Arioli, Roy Hargrove, Paradox Trio, John Pizzarelli.
  • Saint John Jazz and Blues Festival, Saint John, July 12-14. Artists to be announced.
  • Ottawa International Jazz Festival, July 13-22. Tony Bennett, Pete Fountain, Sonny Rollins, Renée Rosnes.
  • Beaches International Jazz Festival, Toronto, July 25-29. Susie Arioli, Tab Benoit, Joey DeFrancesco, Michael Kaeshammer.
  • Kaslo Jazz Etc. Festival, Kalso and Nelson, B.C., Aug. 3-5. Maria Muldaur, Brad Turner, Carlos del Junco.
  • Markham Jazz Festival, Markham, Ont., Aug. 17-19. Michael Kaeshammer, NOJO, Alex Pangman.
  • Festi Jazz International de Rimouski, Rimouski, Que., Aug. 28-Sept. 2. Artists to be announced.
  • Guelph Jazz Festival, Guelph, Ont., Sept. 5-9. Marshall Allen and the Sun Ra Arkestra, Marilyn Crispell, Bill Frisell and Kevin Breit, Andrew Hill.
  • Harvest Jazz & Blues Festival, Fredericton, Sept. 12-16. Sue Foley, Molly Johnson, Joel Miller Sextet, Kevin Turcotte.
  • Pender Harbour Jazz Festival, Madeira Park, B.C., Sept. 14-16. Brass Roots, Ron Johnston, Campbell Ryga, WOW! Orchestra.
  • Orillia Jazz Festival, Orillia, Ont., Oct. 18-21. Artists to be announced.

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Ottawa Bluesfest
Ottawa 613-247-1188
July 6 to 8, 12 to 15

The blues refuse no river. They've swayed to the bottomless beat of the Mississippi for nigh a century, and now, for the last eight years, they've found a summer home on the Rideau in the form of the Ottawa Bluesfest, a.k.a. the Cisco Systems Bluesfest. Second only to the Chicago Blues Festival in size and scope, the Ottawa gathering has grown from a three-day blues boutique to a double-weekend-and-then-some, full-blown bonanza. In addition to the main stage, acoustic sets and a gospel tent are on the schedule.

Talent is spread liberally over seven days, with very few dry patches and plenty of hot spots. Ottawa native Sue Foley should receive her Canadian Queen of the Blues coronation on the final evening of the first weekend's bill on Sun., July 8. Hotshot young guitar slinger Johnny Lang follows Foley that night.

Funk soul brothers James Brown, Ike Turner and Wilson Pickett breathe some life into the sometimes staid blues proceedings on weekend No. 2.

Otis Taylor's passionate, percussive guitar work and thought-provoking lyrics on July 15 should be a crowd pleaser.

And from the Mississippi hill country, legendary R. L. Burnside's drone-boogie guitar work should spellbind on the 16th.

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Winnipeg Folk Festival
Winnipeg 204-231-0096
July 5 to 8

They're feeling pretty Edmonton these days in Winnipeg. Traditionally the Edmonton Folk Festival has boasted more in the way of big-name performers than its Winnipeg counterpart, but the times, it seems, are a-changin'.

Every July for the past 27 years, international crowds have gathered in Winnipeg's Birds Hill Park for mainstream folk music. But this year the stakes have been raised and the horizons broadened: Blue Rodeo, the Cowboy Junkies, Sarah Harmer, Michelle Shocked, the Crash Test Dummies -- all high-profilers that should boost attendance figures (33,600 last year) that didn't really need boosting.

Nelly Furtado beat fellow songbird Sarah Harmer around the curve as Canada's next big thing, but the Kingston, Ont.-based Harmer has certainly arrived.

Two recent soldout shows in Toronto, and a pair of Juno nominations for her album You Are Here, attest to that. Harmer's former Weeping Tile mates -- Luther Wright & the Wrongs -- also appear at the festival.

Their latest effort -- Rebuilding the Wall -- is a backwoods, bluegrass reworking of Pink Floyd's The Wall. Also on the bill: It's only a matter of time before unsung singer-songwriter Danny Michel (ex of the Starlings) flies high. And Tom Wilson (Junkhouse/Blackie and the Rodeo Kings) is a songwriter nonpareil.

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Edmonton Folk Festival
Edmonton 780-429-1899
Aug. 9 to 12

The demise of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival has been greatly exaggerated.

Criticized in recent years for its size and an elastic interpretation of what constitutes folk music, the prestigious 22-year-old event now faces flack for a bill that features small names and big doubts. More than half of the 62 acts scheduled have either played at the festival before or have recently played in the area. The organizers blame rising artists' fees and a small budget.

But you'll still find a weekend's worth of talent that stands up to all but a few music festivals in the country, even if it won't overwhelm anybody.

Country genius Fred Eaglesmith has been described as a "great Texas songwriter that just happens to be from Canada." Richard Buckner is a great American songwriter who just happens to live in Alberta. Both aren't nearly as popular as they should be, and both will be in Edmonton this summer. Other performers include Jennifer Warnes, East Coast acoustic popsters Great Big Sea, the Cowboy Junkies, country-soul crooner Neko Case, Stacey Earle, and a man who knows a few things about festivals -- Richie Havens.

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Wotapalava Festival
July 27

Wotapalava is "a celebration of the freedom to be what you want to be and about having the power to live as you want without fear of discrimination." That, from Pet Shop Boy and tour organizer Neil Tennant, is the mission behind the Wotapalava Festival, the first openly gay music festival to tour North America.

The name Wotapalava is English slang that roughly translates as: "What a fuss about nothing." A novel concept, then, this tour about nothing. Indeed, even without the queer angle, the parcel of performers taking part in the 18-date travelling festival (Toronto's July 27 show is the only Canadian stop) would impress on musical prowess alone.

The Pet Shop Boys, hot Canadian troubadour Rufus Wainwright, Soft Cell and indie rockers Magnetic Fields headline, while a second stage features non-stop dance music by a rotating lineup of name DJs.

Some press reports have Irish Pope-o-phobe Sinead O'Connor as a participant, but the festival Web site does not concur.

Wainwright, out of Montreal, brings his unique brand of cabaret-pop to the party, and is sure to be the belle of the ball. His recent Toronto club shows have been nothing short of brilliant -- let's see if his crowd-charming ways are up to playing the big rooms.

One dollar from every Wotapalava ticket sale will be donated to gay and lesbian advocacy groups.

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Area: One
  • Montreal: July 20
  • Toronto: July 22
  • Vancouver: Aug. 2

North America gets the full Moby treatment this summer. Equal parts electronica rocker, cultural commentator and huckster, Moby reached back into the Alan Lomax bag of early 20th-century African-American folk music for the inspiration behind the Grammy-nominated and platinum-selling Play in 1999.

For the touring Area: One festival, the former Richard Melville Hall takes his cue from the edgy Lollapalooza package tours of the nineties, which redefined the notion of music festivals, preaching strength through diversity, giving much-needed exposure to alternative music, and introducing the likes of Pearl Jam and Nine Inch Nails to the mainstream.

Area: One makes three stops in Canada, with 16 North American dates in total. The slate includes hip-hop's the Roots; rap metal's Incubus, and renowned British DJs Paul Oakenfold and, for the Montreal and Toronto dates, Carl Cox. Grammy-nominated rap duo Outcast, reeking of their album Stankonia,recently cancelled their presence at a few European festival dates for "medical reasons," but their participation on the Area: One tour is still scheduled. Moby headlines all the dates, while local DJs fill out the dance cards.

West Coast stops, including Vancouver, get the recently reactivated postdisco dance-music pioneers New Order, featuring past Pumpkin Billy Corgan on guitar. He's filling in for keyboardist Gillian Gilbert for a bit, but he hasn't been recruited as full-fledged member of the band that this fall will be releasing its first album of new material in eight years. Nelly Furtado is part of the package as well -- but the Canadian pop diva won't be making any of the Dominion gigs.

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The Best of the Rest

  • Edgefest, Barrie, Ont., July 1. Tool, Tea Party, Big Wreck and others.
  • Quebec City Summer Festival, July 5-15. Jean-Pierre Ferland, Claude Dubois, Bruno Pelletier, Boubacar Traoré, John Hammond, Cowboy Junkies and others. 888-992-5200 or
  • Labatt Blues and BBQ Festival, Toronto, July 6-8. Shemekia Copeland, Susan Tedeschi, Boubacar Traoré and others. 416-973-4600 or
  • PEI Bluegrass & Oldtime Music Festival, Rollo Bay, PEI, July 6-8. Lou Reid & Carolina, Chris Jones & the Night Drivers, the Dowden Sisters and others. 902-569-4501.
  • Rhythms of the World, Toronto, July 20-22. Djelimoussa (Ballake) Sissoko, Njava, Mohenjo Daro and others. 416-973-4600 or
  • Ozzfest, Toronto, July 26. Black Sabbath, Marilyn Manson, Papa Roach and others.
  • Big Valley Jamboree, Camrose, Alta., Aug. 2-5. Kim Mitchell, BR5-49, Blue Rodeo, Billy Ray Cyrus and others. 888-404-1234 or
  • Ottawa Folk Festival, Ottawa, Aug. 24-26. John Prine, Fred Eaglesmith, Hawksley Workman, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Ashley McIsaac, Steven Fearing and others. 613-230-8234 or

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