The history of summer music programming in Stratford is somewhat entwined with that of the internationally renowned Stratford Shakespeare Festival. In the 1950’s, when the concept of a cultural festival was emerging in Stratford, one idea was to encompass many performing arts forms, including music and film, in this new arts environment for Canada. Thus, the first Stratford Music Festival was held in 1955 under the direction of the theatre’s music director, Louis Applebaum. Over the next two decades, renowned artists such as Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Glenn Gould and Liona Boyd appeared on the theatre festival’s various stages.
The idea of a unique summer music festival was abandoned by the mid 1970s, only to be briefly revived by the pianist, Elyakim Tausig, and then the conductor, Boris Brott, in the early 1980s as an independent festival, which also collapsed by the end of that decade.
Stratford Summer Music as we know it today began in 2001 under the leadership of John A. Miller. John’s creativity, passion and sound business sense has built Stratford Summer Music into one of Ontario’s finest summer music events. John’s first season, in 2001, featured performances from First Nations author and pianist Thompson Highway, composer R. Murray Schafer and Toronto’s Quartetto Gelato, thus setting the standard for diversity and excellence for all seasons to come.
Over the next decade the Festival expanded gradually, cautiously adding length to its calendar, exploring new venues, reaching out to new audiences, growing its donor base – and always seeking out the most exciting array of musical artists possible from Canada and from around the world.
Important milestones and key events
Artistic-programming highlights from Stratford Summer Music’s first 11 seasons include:
- Inauguration of two enduring series which continue to honour two great figures of Canadian music in the 20th century. The Maureen Forrester Young Canadian Artists series showcases the work of Canada’s emerging musicians, and the Harry Somers Lecture with Music focuses annually on a topic which is relevant to culture and Canada in the 21st century while, prior to each lecture, presenting works composed by Dr. Somers.
- Commissioning of Berthold Carrière’s Fantasy for a Midsummer’s Night in 2002. This popular piece from one of Canada’s outstanding music-theatre composers is now played at every Summer Music opening night.
- Ben Heppner performing four sold-out concerts to audiences who might otherwise never have the opportunity to hear him, in 2003, and then Mr. Heppner’s return to celebrate Summer Music’s 10th season (2010)
- Celebrating Canada’s Year of the Veteran with a military tattoo, featuring a flypast of vintage Harvard airplanes and an appearance by the 48th Highlanders, in 2005.
- A full staging of Mozart’s The Magic Flute by the Marionette Theatre of Schonbrunn Palace, Vienna. (2006)
- The first visit from L’Orchestre de la francophonie canadienne. (2006)
- Bringing Janet Cardiff’s stunning Forty-Part Motet to Stratford’s city hall, where it was experienced by visitors from all over the world. (2008)
- A workshop and public reading of a major new opera based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet by emerging Canadian composer Mark Richards. (2008)
- Publicly-accessible master classes from soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, as well as a visit from the National Youth Orchestra of Canada. (2009)
- The world premiere of MyAudia, a new street opera with music by Peter Hatch and libretto by John Sobol. (2010)
- A Serenade for Maureen Forrester in Words & Music, July 25, 2011. On the anniversary of her birthday, a sensational national tribute to the great Canadian contralto and arts leader who had died one year earlier.
- A visit by Msansi Youth Choir from Johannesburg, South Africa. (2011)
- Canadian Forces gunners join National Youth Orchestra of Canada for a rousing 1812 Overture (2012)
- Salute to Glenn Gould (1932–1982) includes performances by pianists of international renown: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (France), Simone Dinnerstein (USA), David Jalbert & Jan Lisiecki (Canada), Gabriela Montero (Venezuela) (2012)
- Play Me, I’m Yours painted pianos are a hit throughout downtown Stratford (2012)
- Salute to composer R. Murray Schafer to celebrate his 80th birthday (2013)
- Vienna Boys Choir residency and appearance with tenor Michael Schade (2013)
- Opera dinners/brunches become season highlights featuring young Canadian singers in adaptations of opera classics: Carmen (2014), The Magic Flute (2015), The Barber of Seville (2016)
- George Wesner, principal organist, Radio City Music Hall in New York, plays three dynamic concerts on a restored historic theatre organ (2014).
- Ben Heppner joins the Blind Boys of Alabama for a memorable night of gospel-inspired Hallelujahs (2015).
- Internationally celebrated pianists, Paul Lewis and Janina Fialkowska, make their Stratford debuts (2015).
- The Stratford Summer Music Vocal Academy begins under leadership of baritone Phillip Addis, tenor Michael Schade and accompanist/pianist Emily Hamper (2015).
Other non-artistic highlights have included the music festival’s being named silver medalist for Best Festival in Ontario by the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario in 2008.