Music Niagara Festival returns to St. Mark’s Anglican Church for its 2022 season for the first time since before the pandemic.
Founder and artistic director Atis Bankas made the announcement of the festival’s summer line-up to take place from June 17 to Aug. 20 at a Ukraine benefit show held at Club Roma May 12.
Twelve of the festival’s 15 performances this summer will be at its traditional home, a huge relief for Bankas.
“There’s a lot of excitement to be back there, and I hope it stays that way,” a hopeful but cautious Bankas tells The Local. “We have to be ready for any eventualities, but we’re going to take advantage of good timing as far as the pandemic is concerned and do these live concerts.”
The season is bookended by shows with a focus on Ukraine. The Lithuanian-born Bankas has been deeply concerned with the situation in the war-ravaged country since Russia invaded in February, with the Club Roma show raising as much as $20,000 for the Canada-Ukraine Foundation.
“We’re living in unpredictable times,” Bankas says. “People think about these current events. Art is always a reflection of society and the events happening. Art is not only sheer entertainment. It’s important to me that I do programs that make people think. There’s much more to life.”
Kyiv-born pianist Mykola Suk and the CamerAtis Ensemble kicks off the season Friday, June 17 at St. Mark’s, with a program featuring works by Dvorak and Ukrainian composer Ivan Fedorovych Karabyts. Suk first appeared at the same venue during Music Niagara’s inaugural season, when Bankas says there were sometimes more people on stage than in the audience.
The following Monday Mirror Visions Ensemble takes the St. Mark’s stage. For almost 30 years the collective has been known for creatively combining text with music, taking audiences on a journey with words from poets and historical figures set to pieces by composers both familiar and new.
“They’re a very entertaining, multi-genre group,” says Bankas, “from classical to contemporary and Broadway. They have some very interesting singers. It will be a very entertaining evening.”
In another artistic pairing, Lithuanian pianist Victor Paukstelis will combine visual arts with his musical virtuosity on Aug. 14. The unique twist on this combination is that the art being projected during his performance is the work of Paukstelis himself. It’s a program the 38-year-old has taken all across Europe.
Singing takes the spotlight on July 12 and 14, with the Gesualdo Six and the Elmer Iseler Singers visiting St. Mark’s on those respective dates.
“Gesualdo Six is the top group in the world in a capella singing,” the violinist enthuses. “They happened to be on a North American tour. We have history with their leader, Owain Park, who wrote a piece (The Spirit Breathes) that was performed for St. Mark’s 225th anniversary in 2017. This is a top, world-class ensemble.”
Bankas says the festival is in need of billet housing for the Gesualdo Six during their stay in Niagara-on-the-Lake. He urges anyone interested in hosting any of them to contact him.
Jazz and swing lovers will enjoy the June 24 show by Alex Pangman at the McArthur Estate and the return of Heather Bambrick to St. Mark’s on Aug. 19, the 2022 festival’s penultimate presentation. Toronto’s Pangman has become known as Canada’s Sweetheart of Swing, while the Juno-nominated Bambrick has sung with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Hamilton Philharmonic, and numerous jazz ensembles through the years.
Fresh off being awarded the Juno Humanitarian Award earlier this month, Manitoba-born and Nunavut-raised musician Susan Aglukark, known for her 1995 hit Oh Siem, visits St. Mark’s to close out the month of June. The show is being billed as an Artist Life Stories performance, curated and hosted by Cameron Smillie.
Smillie has worked on such shows with the likes of pop musician Ian Thomas, east coast fiddler Ashley MacIsaac, and Cirque du Soleil’s Denver Brown.
“Imagine it like we’re in your living room, there’s a coffee table there, and we’re having a chat,” Smillie explains. “Susan will leave her position at the coffee table and get up to sing, and she’s bringing two backing musicians with her. You get that piece of music, then she comes to sit back down. It goes on like that throughout the evening.”
Former Shaw Festival artistic director Christopher Newton, who died this past December, will be fondly remembered and celebrated on July 17 when Bankas, Victoria Kogan and the CamerAtis Ensemble team up with current Shaw artistic director Tim Carroll to present Richard Strauss’ 1897 melodrama Enoch Arden.
“He performed with Music Niagara many, many times,” Bankas says of Newton. “He performed this piece himself with (Canadian pianist) Robert Silverman for Music Niagara. Tim Carroll loved the idea of doing it. And besides the Tennyson poem and Strauss’ music, we are adding an opening performance with some short selections, hopefully from Shaw actors.”
The venue shifts to Navy Hall on July 9 for Heat, a coming together of trumpet virtuoso Guy Few and mezzo-soprano Julie Nesrallah. They’ll present their interpretations of music by composers Debussy, Bizet, De Falla, Hahn and more.
July 23 will see Jennifer Tung, artistic director at Toronto City Opera, conducting baritone Alex Dobson, soprano Katelyn Bird, countertenor Christian Masucci and the CamerAtis Ensemble in an evening of music by Pergolesi, Bach, Stravinsky and Part.
That month concludes with a fresh look at Beethoven by Portuguese pianist Artur Pereira. And August begins with a Civic Monday dinner show featuring the Toronto All-Star Big Band (TABB) at Club Italia.
During the pandemic, members of the TABB have played various Music Niagara shows in smaller combinations. This will be the first time in a while for the entire big band to come together.
“They are the local favourites, bar none,” Bankas laughs. “This group of young people is definitely very special. Their love and pleasure to play the music captivates the audience. And this will be our first true dinner show.”
The CamerAtis Ensemble joins Canadian pianist Todd Yaniw for an Aug. 7 Schubertiade, a celebration of the music of Viennese composer Franz Schubert. Yaniw is a member of Trio d’Argento and a two-time national winner of the Canadian Music Competition, as well as silver medalist at the Eastman International Piano Competition.
The 2022 season comes full circle on Aug. 20 with Glory to Ukraine, featuring Ukrainian-born violinist Salomiya Yakhiv and American pianist Steven Beck. Ukrainian composers from both the past and the present, including Lysenko, Kosenko, Stankovich and Barvinsky will be featured that afternoon in the final concert of the season.
“There are some new faces and some very familiar faces,” Bankas says about the summer line-up. “It’s a varied program, and I’m really looking forward to seeing some of these performances for the first time myself.”
The full program with ticket prices can be found on their website, musicniagara.org.