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Edmonton celebrates chamber music with its Solstice festival

People with long winters tend to make the most out of summer. Alberta's capital is known internationally for its August folk festival, and its late-summer fringe theatre festival is the world's second-largest (after Edinburgh's). This weekend, Edmonton hosts the ever-expanding Summer Solstice Festival, celebrating chamber music.

The brainchild of Patricia Tao, a professor of piano and an Edmonton Chamber Music Society board member, the three-day festival aims to reflect the less rigid side of classical music. To that end, Tao likes to mix it up, inviting many musicians who will be playing together for the first time.

This year's festival features a who's who of Canadian classical music talent. Violinist Lara St. John won a Juno in April for her record company Ancalagon's Mozart disc. Several other Juno winners are on the weekend's roster, including two of the three members of the Gryphon Trio - Annalee Patipatanakoon and Roman Borys - and pianist Angela Cheng and cellist Marina Hoover, a founding member of the St. Lawrence String Quartet.

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Besides playing with the Gryphon Trio, Borys is the Ottawa Chamberfest's artistic director, so he takes a larger view of ventures like the Solstice festival. He's noticed that Edmonton has a knack for getting things going in the arts.

"Rather than look down at their own navel and be satisfied with everything that they have, I've always found people in Edmonton looking far, far away, being happy living where they are, but knowing that they can bring cool things to them," Borys says.

Like programmers in every classical music venture, Tao wants to expand the audience, but growing the festival isn't the aim for now.

"When I see a festival like Ottawa's, which has been so successful, you see people from all walks of life. It's not just concertgoers. It would be great to do that, but we just aren't established enough to go that far out," Tao says.

Last year, Tao invited cellist Matt Haimovitz, an innovator with a distinctly unstuffy take on how classical music should be represented. Haimovitz has taken his cello into such unconventional settings as taverns and coffee houses to try to break down barriers between popular and so-called serious music.

This year, Tao hopes St. John will help lure new listeners. The violinist has a reputation as an unconventional musical personality. When she returns home to New York after the Edmonton concerts, she plans to go into the studio to record a disc of wedding polkas. (Later this summer, she's also playing a Celtic show to open the Ottawa festival on July 23, and that evening the world premiere of acclaimed composer John Corigliano's Stomp.)

Saturday features a Franz Liszt program, marking the 200th anniversary of his birth with a celebration of the revolutionary elements of his compositions. Sunday's program is a collection of chamber music hits, including Robert Schumann's Piano Quintet in E-flat Major.

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"We're trying to make classical music accessible," says Tao, who will herself be performing with her trio. "It can be fun. It can be entertaining. It's not all serious."

The Edmonton Summer Solstice Festival runs until Sunday at Convocation Hall on the University of Alberta campus. Saturday concert at 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m.

Special to the Globe and Mail

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