It's hard to believe it's been a year since the International Cello Festival of Canada made its indelible mark on Winnipeg. Sixty cellists from around the world descended on our city for five days of unforgettable concerts, master classes, spirit and camaraderie. More than 5,000 audience members of all ages clamoured for seats at the various venues and were thrilled by the music and congeniality of the artists.
The event was presented by Winnipeg Cultural Capital of Canada and Agassiz Chamber Music Festival (ACMF), supported by the Winnipeg Foundation. ACMF has held a festival here every June since 2000 and the 2012 edition runs June 9-16. This year it returns to its traditional format (not all cello) -- eight days of concerts and events featuring an appealing roster of guest artists.
"The original idea came from James Manishen... from an article he wrote in the Winnipeg Free Press back in 1999," said artistic director and cellist Paul Marleyn via email from Rome, Italy. "Inspired by James' suggestion that Winnipeg needed a classical summer chamber music festival, the then-director of the school of music at the University of Manitoba, Richard Wedgewood, my violin colleague at the university, David Stewart and I put our heads together and decided to inaugurate a summer chamber music festival in Winnipeg in 2000."
Marleyn, a former Winnipegger and principal cello of the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, left here in 2004 and now resides in Ottawa, where he is professor of cello and co-ordinator of chamber music and strings at the University of Ottawa.
"Paul is very much the author and creator of the festival," said festival director Rita Menzies in a telephone interview. "He has so many connections. He selects the theme and the repertoire. He has the vision and that's the reason the festival is so successful."
This year's event celebrates the 150th anniversary of the birth of Claude Debussy, but you'll hear other composers' works as well, including Brahms, Mozart, Dvorák, Schumann, Ravel, Mahler -- even Schoenberg. "Schoenberg's Transfigured Night is completely unlike his later atonal works," said Marleyn of one of his festival picks (Thursday, June 14). "It is romantic, filled with gorgeous harmonies and beautiful melodies... it is also a real favourite with string players and audiences."
Marleyn's "connections" are reflected in the impressive list of musicians participating in the festival. The Gryphon Trio, with more than a dozen recordings to its credit and regularly heard on CBC Radio 2 tops the list and will play Brahms' Piano Trio Opus 101 in C minor on opening night and Debussy's Piano Trio on Friday, June 15. The individual members, Annalee Patipatanakoon, violin, Roman Borys, cello and Jamie Parker, piano will perform most other nights in various ensemble combinations. "It's really special for us to have them here," said Menzies.
Other notable artists include Jamie Somerville, French horn, violinists Scott St. John and Olivier Thouin, violist Sharon Wei and pianist Aimee Tsuchiya. Marleyn has also selected a host of Winnipeg musicians, including violinist Karl Stobbe who will give a solo recital Wednesday night and soprano Monica Huisman, a featured performer on Thursday. "Karl is a nationally respected and superb violinist, so we're excited to feature him in a solo recital,' said Marleyn. "We are delighted to be presenting Monica in the festival for the first time. She is very well-known and well-loved."
Stobbe has an ambitious program of sonatas by Ravel, Debussy, Janacek and Ysaye planned. Huisman will sing Dvorák's haunting Song to the Moon from Rusalka, songs by Debussy, Mahler and Lehár and will walk the lighter side with I've got Faust Under my Skin, a melding of Schubert and Cole Porter. Both artists will be accompanied by Tsuchiya.
Break out the popcorn for movie night (Sunday). "This year's movie soundtrack features the chamber music of Gabriel Fauré," explained Marleyn. "Fauré's music meant a great deal to Debussy... and was a colleague."
The inclusion of French horn results in some very satisfying repertoire. Catch Somerville and colleagues playing two trios for horn, violin and piano; one by Kelly Marie Murphy, the other by Brahms (Tuesday) or the delightful horn quintet by Mozart on Thursday. The gala finale goes out with a bang with Schumann's Fantasy Pieces for Horn and Piano and Schubert's meaty Octet, with Somerville, St. John, Thouin, Wei, Marleyn and Winnipeggers Micah Heilbrunn, clarinet, James Ewen, bassoon, and Meredith Johnson, double bass.
The hardworking folks at Agassiz are hoping to build on last year's success. "We're being a little bolder," said Menzies of the decision to hold opening and closing nights at the larger venue of Crescent Fort Rouge United Church. The remaining concerts, recitals and two master classes (with Thouin and Parker) will be held in Eckhardt-Gramatté Hall at the University of Winnipeg. "It's quite remarkable how overall attendance has increased every year."
Concerts start at 7:30 p.m. A $90 festival pass ($80/seniors, $35/students) gains you entry to all concerts and events. Single tickets are $25, $10 for students and young adults up to age 29. Wednesday's noontime concert featuring pianist Madeline Hildebrand is $10, $5 for students. See detailed program information at www.agassizfestival.com