Agassiz Chamber fest jazzes it up with diverse lineup

From Brahms to Buster Keaton to the Beatles


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This year’s Agassiz Chamber Music Festival roars back to life by offering something for everyone: from everyone’s favourite pachyderm, Babar, to the transcendent music of 12th-century mystic Saint Hildegard von Bingen. The festival this year boasts a full lineup of nightly concerts, masterclasses, film, emerging artist showcases and even jazz.

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This year’s Agassiz Chamber Music Festival roars back to life by offering something for everyone: from everyone’s favourite pachyderm, Babar, to the transcendent music of 12th-century mystic Saint Hildegard von Bingen. The festival this year boasts a full lineup of nightly concerts, masterclasses, film, emerging artist showcases and even jazz.

The 23-year-old annual event, spearheaded by artistic director/cellist Paul Marleyn, runs June 4-10 at the Canadian Mennonite University’s intimate Laudamus Auditorium, located at 500 Shaftesbury Blvd.

This year’s event, called the Strains of Summerland, features programming that showcases more than 20 local and international artists. It is noticeably more diverse than past fests, including traditional chamber fare by those proverbial “dead white composers” along with lesser-heard gems and arresting artistic voices much closer to home.

Mark Rash photo

Cellist and Agassiz artistic director Paul Marleyn

“The zeitgeist of the national and international arts community right now is diversity and gender equality, and it’s wonderful when festivals can reflect those changing elements in society,” the British-born Marleyn says over the phone from Ottawa, where he teaches at the University of Ottawa. “It’s something we’ve been trying to embrace in recent years, and I think that’s a really good thing.”

First up is Summerland, an opening concert (June 4) that celebrates cultural diversity. Filled with lilting songs and dances, the program includes the local première of Afro-American composer William Grant Still’s Summerland, excerpted from his 1935 suite, Three Visions.

“It’s a fantastic piece, and somehow defines this wonderful time of the year in Winnipeg. However, it also exists on several different levels, with the idea of ‘summerland’ reflecting a place the soul may enter in the afterlife,” he says of the work originally composed for Still’s pianist wife, Verna Arvey.

The first of two emerging-artist noon recitals happens on June 5: Beneath the Azure Sky, spotlighting Métis soprano Camryn Dewar and collaborative pianist Paul Williamson. Chamber buffs can get their next fix with Intoxicated, an evening show that explores “the human experience of being overtaken by emotion,” including Hildegard von Bingen’s ethereal O Virtus Sapiente for string quartet, as well as American pianist/composer John Novacek’s Intoxication Piano Rag.

The Grammy-nominated musician will also treat listeners to his live improvised score for Buster Keaton’s 1920 silent film The Scarecrow. The eclectic bill concludes with Dvorak’s “Dumky” Piano Trio.

Mark Rash photo

Agassiz artistic director Paul Marleyn

“John is multi-talented, and just an extremely creative guy,” Marleyn says of the critically acclaimed artist, who teaches at New York City’s Mannes College while maintaining a lively international touring schedule.

“I’ve wanted to have someone play live music for film in the festival for years, as my great-grandmother used to do that in England, in the movie theatres in north London. So this hits very close to home for me,” he adds.

The offerings on June 6 venture even farther afield — literally — with the noon-hour concert Midsummer Moon, livestreamed via the Agassiz website from the Pontiac Enchanté Concert Barn, tucked away in the rolling fields of Luskville, Que. The program performed in the refurbished hayloft — yes, an old, once straw-filled barn witness to horse snorts, whinnies and neighs — features Carissa Klopoushak, violin and artistic director for Ottawa Chamberfest, joined by collaborative pianist Carson Becke in works by Schumann and Rebecca Clarke.

That same night, audience members will be treated to a program of jazz standards and original tunes, courtesy of the Will Bonness Jazz Trio (Will Bonness, piano; Fabio Ragnelli, drums; Daniel Fortin, bass), marking the first time a jazz group has appeared on the Agassiz stage.

“Jazz is another type of music I’ve wanted to include in the festival for years, and Will is such a wonderful jazz player, too,” Marleyn says of the Winnipeg-based artist. “My dad was a professional tenor sax player, and so I heard a great deal of jazz in my upbringing. It’s absolutely fabulous to have so many different genres with this year’s programming, including world and folk music, jazz and classical.”

Carl Van Vechten

Summerland composer William Grant Still

Not to be outdone, the Winnipeg-based Ferguson Brass Quartet, made up of four family members, performs June 7 at noon, followed by Four Play Cello — Plus One. Cellists Yuri Hooker, Marleyn himself, Sam Nadurak, Minna Rose Chung and Mick Stirling (principal cellist of the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in the Netherlands) let their hair down with works ranging from Menotti to Metallica, and Bach to Beatles in an evening billed as “cello fun.”

​A second emerging artist showcase titled Rhapsody (featuring violinist Liana Fonseca, pianist Leanne Lee Regehr and cellist Sam Nadurak) takes place June 8 at noon, followed by French writer Jean de Brunhoff’s tale The Story of Babar the Little Elephant, narrated live by Ratuski. The latter performance, slated for 4 p.m. that same day, features Francis Poulenc’s piano score brought to life by Novacek, with visual projections of the winsome storybook’s original illustrations projected upstage.

The evening concert on June 8, From the Folk, features three Grieg violin sonatas performed by Cathy French, Karl Stobbe and Oleg Pokhanovski, with the following day’s noon-hour show, Spanish Flair to Brazilian Charm, whisking listeners to sultry climes. So will Fandango, showcasing and another festival “newbie,” classical guitarist Daniel Bolshoy from Montreal, during June 9’s 4 p.m. program.

One of the most intriguing concerts promises to be Voodoo Dolls, being held June 9, and titled after a 2008 work of the same name. The edgier bill, which Marleyn tantalizes as “exploring the dark side a bit,” features works for oboe and string quartet by Britten, Bridge and Rachmaninoff.

The festival ends with a bang with the June 10 finale, For the Future. Audiences will thrall to Brahms’ “magnificent and powerful” Piano Quintet, as well as Three Romances by Clara Schumann. The forward-looking night rounds out with high-octane works boasting Argentine, Azerbaijani and African roots.


Manitoba soprano Camryn Dewar

Marleyn is thrilled that his eagerly anticipated rite of spring has returned with a full week of live concerts, following its several past years of COVID pivots and protocols, but he encourages audience members to consider wearing face masks.

He notes that the inherently close-knit camaraderie of chamber music offers an antidote for years of stringent distancing requirements.

“Performing for live audiences helps gets us back to that cherished ritual of attending concerts, and the community feeling that that creates,” he shares. “It will be fantastic playing live music with friends and colleagues once again, and treating audiences to these wonderfully diverse programs that we can’t wait to present.”

All evening concerts begin at 7:30 p.m, following 7 p.m. live interviews with festival host Andrea Ratuski.

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