Halifax loves its summer festivals. Halifax Jazz, Multifest, OBEY, Fringe---as soon as patio season starts, we're ready for music and theatre and dancing in any number of our parking lots/festival sites. One of the oldest of these festivals (and one that appreciates atmosphere and the value of comfortable seating) is the Scotia Festival of Music, a celebration of chamber music ringing in its 35th year. From its humble beginnings of the Scotia Chamber Players inviting four guest artists to perform with them, to this year's multi-faceted, education-heavy program that will see 30 internationally celebrated performers taking the stage, this perpetually popular event might be Halifax's best-kept cultural secret.
Chris Wilcox, Scotia Festival's managing director, has been with the event since day one. An original founding member of the Scotia Chamber Players, Wilcox invited his clarinet teacher---and longtime principal clarinetist for the Cleveland Orchestra---Robert Marcellus to perform with the group. It was Marcellus (who went on to act as musical director for the festival from 1980 to 1983) who suggested a chamber music festival might be a good fit for Halifax, and who invited Lynn Harrell, considered one of history's greatest cellists, to perform at the inaugural festival. Though his long tenure makes it difficult for Wilcox to choose a single highlight, he can't contain his excitement over Harrell's return to the festival this year, some 35 years after his first visit. "Lynn is coming to Scotia Festival for two weeks and doing a ton of stuff, for less money than if he played a solo concerto with the new York Philharmonic," he says. "I really don't know what I've done to deserve it."
While Wilcox may see Harrell's return as a surprise gift, those who have benefited from the Scotia Festival (and they number in the hundreds, if not thousands) understand just how special the event is, and how lucky the community is to be able to take part. The festival's heavy emphasis on education (Wilcox calls the various interactive and educations programs "deeply important") is a year-round effort, and reaches deep into the community. Even the festival posters and programs are part of their educational efforts, which are held year round.
"Every year we have a poster painting project," explains Wilcox. "We take an ensemble into a school, this year a woodwind quartet, and students, grade two, grade three, grade four, paint while they listen to music. And we take those paintings and put our labels on the bottom. So every poster for the festival is an original work of art."
This early engagement is part of what makes the Scotia Festival so dynamic and unique, and its reach is not confined to children. Young Artist coordinator Jane Levitt first got involved in the festival as a music student, eventually taking over the role of coordinator from Erin Costelo in 2009. "The Young Artist Program at Scotia Festival of Music is a multifaceted educational experience offered in a unique setting," says Levitt. "This type of mentorship is so valuable as it helps to foster a very special learning environment and can be a major source of inspiration."
Whiles some think of chamber music as stuffy or inaccessible, the folks responsible for Scotia Festival of Music know better. Wilcox quotes former guest musical director, composer and pianist Pierre Boulez when he insists that "instead of saying 'classical music' or 'chamber music,' I like saying 'repertoire music.' It's music that stays, that lasts forever."
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