Opening Night Opera Gala
Elora Festival Singers and Orchestra. Judith Yan, conductor. Gambrel Barn, Elora. July 13.
ELORA, ONT.—On Friday night, this picturesque southwestern Ontario town was filled with the sounds of opera, quickly followed by the roar of the adoring audience’s prolonged ovation.
It was a happy, enthusiastic start to the 39th edition of the Elora Festival, which is packing in more than two dozen events over the next two weeks.
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A concert of opera’s greatest hits is a surefire recipe to put smiles on people’s faces. The mood at the Gambrel Barn – a large roads department salt shed that serves as the festival’s improbably fine main venue – reminded me of the happy, breezy concerts former Canadian Opera Company general director Richard Bradshaw would conduct every summer at Harbourfront.
It helped that the golden voices of the four guest soloists were homegrown – all of them associated now or in the recent past with the COC. Canadian opera fans have so much to celebrate. The proof was in the uniformly brilliant performances.
Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian was the marquee attraction (and she remained in Elora for a solo concert later in the weekend). Now in mid-career, she has sung around the world and established herself as a voice teacher at the University of California in Santa Barbara, so we don’t get to hear her much in Ontario anymore.
Her voice has darkened a bit, growing in dramatic intensity. Her engagement with whatever she sings is magnetic. She delivered a satisfying cross-section of arias by George Frideric Handel, Georges Bizet and Jules Massenet before joining the other three soloists and their glasses of champagne for a rousing Brindisi from Verdi’s La Traviata.
Tenor Andrew Haji sounds better and better every time I hear him. His ringing high notes were the stuff of goosebumps. Baritone Samuel Chan was a treat, and soprano Danika Lorèn’s coloratura singing sparkled.
Conductor Judith Yan, the artistic director of the Guelph Symphony Orchestra, kept everything moving smoothly.
The Elora Festival Orchestra, always a collection of freelancers, sported some familiar Toronto faces, as did the Festival Chorus. Both were nicely prepared. This was the first time that festival co-founder Noel Edison was not present, and it didn’t seem to matter one bit.
The bulk of the program was made up of old warhorses that get performed over and over again. There’s a certain comfort in the familiar, but what really keeps this music alive is hearing it performed with utter conviction by first-rate artists. When sung the way Haji and Chin did on Friday, I could listen to the famous duet from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers indefinitely.
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Elora is a small town that punches big musically. And this was just the first of many concerts of similar calibre it is offering this year.
Festival opens new chapter
If there was an elephant in the Gambrel Barn on Friday, it was Noel Edison. As a founder of the festival in 1980, he had grown up with it. Edison connected his musical dots, which included the artistic directorship of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, through the Elora Festival.
In February and March, a number of people from all the organizations Edison was involved with came forward to accuse him of multiple instances of inappropriate and unprofessional behaviour. It didn’t take long for the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the Elora Festival to sever ties with their artistic director. Many people wondered what would become of the festival without Edison at its centre.
This year’s festival program was already in place when the organization named Mark Vuorinen, artistic director of the Grand Philharmonic Choir in Guelph, as interim artistic director and, more recently, as artistic director.
I spoke to a number of people, including Vuorinen, before the gala opening concert. Of course, everyone put the best gloss on the situation. But it also quickly became clear that the Elora Festival is not about a single personality; it is really about the people of Elora and surroundings coming together to create musical magic once a year.
Even with a population of less than 8,000, the town musters 140 volunteers to run the festival, and dozens of billets for visiting artists. “In the end, it’s all about community,” beamed Elora Festival board chair Charlotte Logan as she prepared for a post-concert reception and fireworks outside the Gambrel Barn.
Classical music writer John Terauds is a freelance contributor for the Star, based in Toronto. He is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @JohnTerauds