It’s a match made in paradise.
The Monet-inspired grand garden at Pillar and Post provides the backdrop for Music Niagara Festival’s Paris Connection, to premiere as the next installment of the At Home Series on the non-profit organization’s website and YouTube channel Thursday, Sept. 2.
Music Niagara’s founder and artistic director Atis Bankas wishes Vintage Hotels owner Jimmy Lai could be here to experience it. Lai, of course, is in China, having been sentenced to 14 months in prison after being found guilty in mid-April of unauthorized assembly. The conviction stems from the role his Apple Daily newspaper played in pro-democracy efforts, as well as from his participation in organizing and participating in protests last year.
“It was the vision of Mr. Jimmy Lai,” Bankas says, explaining that Monet’s Giverny garden, immortalized in much of his art, was less than an hour from Paris, the home of the French Impressionists, whose work was inspired by the artist.
“Immediately when I was told (about the garden) it struck a chord in me, and I thought of some French connection music,” Bankas explains. “We are playing music from French Impressionists, like Ravel and Debussy. We added Jacques Ibert who, being a Frenchman, wrote more in Spanish musical colours.”
The repertoire for the show also includes the Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano, written by another French composer Claude Bolling, who passed away in December, 2020.
“It’s a mixture of classical and jazz,” Bankas says. “It was originally written for Jean-Pierre Rampal (a French flautist who also died last year). It all connects with the gardens, and it’s very inspiring to film here.”
Some familiar musicians will be spotted in the program. The flute jazz trio includes pianist Michael Berkovsky, who was also at the piano a few years ago when Music Niagara took on Claude Bolllng’s Violin Suite. Bassist Bob Mills has appeared numerous times at the festival, and drummer Lorne Grossman’s association with Music Niagara goes back to the 1812 celebrations, when the Oakville Symphony tympanist’s work was front and centre for a percussion heavy score.
On flute is Leslie Allt, the principal flautist with the National Ballet Orchestra. Allt is known as an avid proponent of contemporary music, and has also performed or recorded with the likes of Ray Charles, Sophie Milman, David Amram, Blue Rodeo and Diana Krall.
Bankas plays violin, accompanied by fellow Niagara-on-the-Lake resident Erica Goodman, winner of a Juno Award in 1995 and former member of the National Arts Centre Orchestra. Acclaimed as one of the world’s outstanding solo harpists, Goodman is also a member of Toronto’s Art of Time Ensemble and plays regularly for Shaw Festival.
“She needs no introduction,” Bankas says. “She is one of the greatest harpists in Canada, and internationally. We are lucky to have her.”
When asked about the interplay between violin and harp, Bankas has a difficult time putting it into words. “The ringing of the harp’s strings,” Bankas says, “it does affect you physically, not just emotionally. You feel the wave coming to you. I wish we could have performed this to a live audience, because there you feel it even more, situated so much closer. It’s a pleasure to perform with Erica again.”
The concert was recorded inside the new Event Barn of the Pillar and Post garden, and it surprised many just how good the acoustics were in the space. It helped, of course, that event sponsor Steinway provided one of their pianos free of charge, requiring the festival to pay only for shipping it from Toronto.
“It’s very alive,” he enthuses about the barn. “There is beautiful resonance coming off the wood. It gives me ideas about what can be programmed here in the future. I bet we are probably the first professional musicians doing a concert here. It’s a beautiful venue for years to come and it can accommodate a variety of genres.”
For the video premiere next week, exterior images of the garden grounds, including the stunning Pont du Monet, will be interspersed with the music the artist’s original surroundings inspired.
Bankas is sure that there will be many future Music Niagara Festival concerts held in the beautiful setting, and he hopes that soon, Jimmy Lai will have his freedom returned so he can be back in Niagara-on-the-Lake to experience the result of his vision.
“We have a wonderful relationship with Vintage Hotels,” says Bankas. “I hope he somehow gets the video wherever he is. His ideas and his dreams came through.”
Paris Connection debuts on the Music Niagara Festival website and its YouTube channel on Thursday, Sept. 2 at 4 p.m.