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New Festival Brings top Performers to Isabel’s Stage

October 15, 2019
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For artistic director Tricia Baldwin, scheduling the Isabel season is akin to putting together a puzzle: you find a few pieces that fit and build from there.That was also the case for Baldwin as she assembled the inaugural Virtuosi Festival, which begins Wednesday night at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts with a performance by pianist Jan Lisiecki and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and concludes in March with saxophonist Branford Marsalis.

In addition to figuring out who’s playing where and when, Baldwin regularly chats with her counterparts in cities such as Ottawa and Montreal.

“What ends up happening is you have all these great artists and it’s all pending what tours pan out, so both the artists and the bookers are trying to put their own puzzles together,” she said.

Helping the Isabel’s cause is that musicians really want to play the venue and not just the other way around.

“Now we’ve got a really great reputation for our series and also the hall itself,” she said. “So we’ve got artist agents who approach us as well. So there’s information from many different sources that (help us) put that together.”One of the reasons the Isabel decided to introduce another festival this year was the success of past ones, such as the international violin festival in the 2016-17 season.

“When we did (that one), we created a lot of excitement and we were able to attract a lot of new audience members, too,” Baldwin recalled. “It actually just opened up the whole centre, so we decided to do it again.”

Like that festival — which featured roots music fiddler Ashley MacIsaac along with concert violinists such as James Ehnes — the Virtuosi Festival will take a multidisciplinary approach. Baldwin is betting concert-goers will be interested in going on a musical “journey” as they did with the violin festival.“That’s a hard glass ceiling to break because some people are, ‘I like this, but not that.’ So with our multidisciplinary projects and our multi-genre programming, we actually have people go on that journey.”

The first piece of the Virtuosi Festival puzzle to be put together was Wednesday night’s concert.

“The same concert we have has gone to Carnegie Hall and then it’s going to go to Europe, including the Berliner Philharmonie,” Baldwin said. “It’s a huge tour, and it’s great because we’ve never had the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and they’re one of the top chamber orchestras in the world.”It just so happened that pianist Lisiecki, who has played the Isabel before, was touring with them.

“What we try to do is we try to bring in new artists people haven’t seen before as well as reinviting some people,” said Baldwin, who had first approached Orpheus, not Lisiecki, about performing there.

Lisiecki first found fame when he was 15 years old, the same age as piano prodigy Nediak, who performs Oct. 29 and is considered one of the top 10 pianists in his age group. He has already been a featured soloist with the Toronto and Montreal symphonies as well as Kingston’s.

He won’t be the festival’s lone youthful representative, as the performance by the National Youth Orchestra of Canada and the European Union Youth Orchestra (Nov. 13) will introduce a younger generation (76 of them, in fact) to the Isabel stage.“I have a lot of faith in this generation coming through — they’re excellent at what they do,” said Baldwin, who was once a member of the NYOC herself.

“It’s phenomenal the level of playing that they have at that age.”

In contrast to that concert stands those featuring renowned soprano Measha Brueggergosman (Nov. 12) and pianist Yefim Bronfman (Nov. 23).

“(Bronfman’s) a star player. He’s had a whole career,” Baldwin said, adding that securing Bronfman and Marsalis was a coup. “We have the emerging artists, and then we have the established. It’s nice to have that age range. Every generation has their own take on the repertoire.”Sometimes, however, you have to take the repertoire to the artist. That was the case with pianist Stewart Goodyear and the Fine Arts Quartet (Nov. 7).

“The Fine Arts Quintet wanted to come in, and then we really wanted to invite Stewart Goodyear back. So we were kind of a matchmaker in putting them together,” said Baldwin, who suggested they perform Brahms’ Piano Quintet in f minor together.

And the festival concludes with Marsalis, whose storied career has included stints playing with the likes of pop singer Sting and as bandleader of The Tonight Show.“Branford is regarded as one of the top jazz musicians in the world,” Baldwin noted.

Of course, staging a festival of this magnitude costs money, so the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts turned to Bader Philanthropies.

“We can’t go to them every single season,” Baldwin said, “but for this festival and competition, it opens up new audiences and just the ability to attract the artists we were able to attract to the festival was pretty exciting.”

For a festival details, or to buy individual tickets and packages online, go to