Best classical music festivals in USA and Canada

Paul Riley picks out some of the best classical music festivals to look out for in the USA and Canada

Best American classical music festivals

Best classical music festivals in America

Cincinnati May Festival

Cincinnati, OH, 21-30 May
Tel: +1 513 381 3300

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Faced with the challenges of social distancing, Cincinnati’s compact choral festival has turned a constraint to positive advantage with some deft programming. Juanjo Mena is at the head of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra for two concerts, sharing a selection from Holst’s Rig Veda plus works by Mahler, Bruckner and Britten. Robert Porco takes over the baton for Copland, Schneider and John Adams’s The Wound Dresser.

Spoleto Festival USA

Charleston, SC, 28 May – 13 June
Tel: +1 843 579 3100

From venerable Dock Street Theater to Cistern Yard, Spoleto makes the most of its festival-enhancing venues. But there are also virtual additions to be stitched into a multi-arts line-up that remembers The Great Migration in the company of mezzo Alicia Hall Moran together with her composer-pianist husband Jason Moran. The ever-popular chamber music series features Jessica Meyer as composer-in-residence, and she repays the compliment with two new works. Cellist Alisa Weilerstein, meanwhile, premieres a new piece by Osvaldo Golijov.

Boston Early Music Festival

Boston, MA, 6-13 June
Tel: +1 617 661 1812

‘Music of Solace and Joy’ is the banner for a reimagined virtual series which delves into Boston Early Music Festival’s rich video archive to present 2017’s production of Campra’s Le carnaval de Venise and a Pergolesi double bill. A season of concerts specially filmed across Europe and the US includes Doulce Mémoire with a programme inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, A Requiem for Josquin from Vienna’s Imperial Chapel, and a festival finale given by string ensemble Acronym.

Caramoor Festival

Katonah, NY,
19 June – 8 August
Tel: +1 914 232 1252

Given the 80 acres of prime parkland wrapped around Walter and Lucie Rosen’s ‘house for music’, its Venetian Theater and Spanish Courtyard, social distancing shouldn’t be a problem. Caramoor is a year-round powerhouse of cultural activity, but come June things ramp up a notch. Artists slated for 2021 include Chanticleer, Apollo’s Fire and new music specialists PUBLIQuartet and Sō Percussion, who premiere a new piece by Shodekeh Talifero.

Bravo! Vail

Vail, CO, 24 June – 4 August

Tel: +1 970 827 5700

There must be more than a little friendly rivalry as four orchestras converge on the Vail valley for a festival that also includes chamber concerts and an ‘Immersive Experience’ (this year, the Escher Quartet lifts the lid on Bartók). Bravo festival regulars the New York Philharmonic, Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra are joined this year by the returning Academy of St Martin in the Fields; soloists include violinists James Ehnes and Gil Shaham, as well as pianists Daniil Trifonov and Yefim Bronfman.

Oregon Bach Festival

Eugene, OR, 25 June – 11 July
Tel: +1 541 346 5666

While Oregon has opted for a digital festival this summer, there’s an upside: its mixture of pre-recorded concerts and original events are offered free of charge. Matt Haimovitz’s opener, pairing two of Bach’s solo cello suites with new pieces by David Sanford and Luna Pearl Woolf, sets down a marker that Bach doesn’t exclusively rule the roost. The Dunedin Consort takes Barbara Strozzi’s Lagrime Mie as the starting point for one of two appearances – neatly complementing the festival’s ‘Phenomenal Women’ strand.

Colorado Music Festival

Boulder, CO
1 July – 7 August

2020’s virtual festival proved something of a hit, so this year music director Peter Oundjian is extending the invitation to six live concerts to online audiences too. The inspiring German violinist Augustin Hadelich will be leading the way in Boulder as artist-in-residence, taking to a stage that will also be graced by the likes of pianist Olga Kern and cellist Alisa Weilerstein. New for this year, meanwhile, is the Robert Mann Chamber Music Series, named after the founder and long-term member of the egregious Juilliard String Quartet.

Aspen Music Festival and School

Aspen, CO
1 July – 22 August
Tel: +1 970 925 9042

Aspen makes good on some of last year’s cancellations, including some Beethovenian ‘unfinished business’ – the first orchestral concert conducted by Leonard Slatkin pairs the Emperor Concerto and Symphony No. 5. Fellow conductors include Vasily Petrenko, James Conlon and artistic director Robert Spano. And among visiting artists are pianist Jeremy Denk, cellist Alisa Weilerstein and soprano Renée Fleming, who joins the Academy Chamber Orchestra for Maria Schneider’s Grammy Award-winning Winter Morning Walks.

Ravinia Festival

Highland Park, IL,
July – September (dates TBC)
Tel: +1 847 266 5100

In her new capacity as Ravinia’s chief conductor and curator, Marin Alsop leads seven concerts as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s summer residency resumes in Highland Park. All concerts will take place in the open-air pavilion, and although details are under wraps at the time of writing, an announcement is expected in late Spring.

Chamber Music Northwest

Portland, OR
1 July – 1 August
Tel: +1 503 294 6400

Diversity is at the heart of the Portland-based festival that adds a new meaning to the word as it overlaps a live in-person series with its delayed stream. There’s plenty to stream – from Marc Neikrug’s new chamber opera A Song by Mahler to Schubert’s String Quintet with the Brentano Quartet and cellist Paul Watkins. Marc-André Hamelin is part of the team for Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, and he also joins the Dover Quartet for Leo Ornstein’s Piano Quintet.

Bard Summerscape and Music Festival

Hudson Valley NY
8 July – 22 August
Tel: +1 845 758 7900

Frank Gehry’s stunning Hudson Valley arts centre stirs into action for the confluence of the multi-arts Summerscape and its older sibling Music Festival. They revive last year’s reluctantly relinquished exploration of ‘Nadia Boulanger and her World’; and rescued too is Chausson’s opera Le roi Arthus which receives its first fully staged production in North America. Framed by the Catskills and the Hudson, there’s also a new site-specific dance work choreographed by Pam Tanowitz.

Tanglewood

Tanglewood, MA,
9 July – 16 August
Tel: +1 888 266 1200

Conductor Andris Nelsons leads his Boston Symphony Orchestra back to where they belong when the summer sun hits the rural Berkshires. He conducts eight programmes, the first featuring the work that opened the very first edition of the festival back in 1937 – Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. And it, like all the concerts this season, takes over the Koussevitzky Hall where John Williams conducts the premiere of his new Violin Concerto for Anne-Sophie Mutter. Plus, composer-conductor Thomas Adès directs the Festival of Contemporary Music.

Santa Fe Opera

Santa Fe, NM
10 July – 27 August
Tel: +1 800 280 4654

With three new productions and a world premiere, Santa Fe is confident that it won’t just be the stars of a New Mexico night sky that will be shining brightly. John Corigliano’s new opera The Lord of Cries provides an unexpected meeting place for Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Bacchae by Euripides; and Santa Fe Opera’s music director Harry Bicket takes charge of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin completes the line-up, its cast headed up by Etienne Dupuis in the title role.

Glimmerglass Festival

Cooperstown, NY
15 July – 17 August
Tel: +1 607 547 2255

The Alice Busch Opera Theater remains silent this summer due to Covid-19 caution, but never fear, ‘Glimmerglass on the Grass’ enjoys the best ventilation a festival could ever wish for. On a specially constructed stage, abridged operatic re-imaginings take in Mozart’s Magic Flute, Verdi’s Il trovatore, Offenbach’s La périchole and the world premiere of The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson, a new piece of music theatre about the founder of the National Negro Opera Company, with acclaimed mezzo Denyce Graves in the title role.

Music@Menlo

Menlo, CA,
16 July – 1 August
Tel: +1 650 331 0202

If ever there was a festival favourably positioned to shift online last year, it must surely have been Silicon Valley-based Music@Menlo. Like many other festivals, it’s now got the appetite to include some live streaming. But
there’s no substitute for the live experience, and under the hope-filled title ‘Gather’, nine programmes and two afternoon Prelude Performances are being rolled out this year. Menlo co-founders cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han will be joined by a choice roster of artists including pianist Gilbert Kalish.

Maverick Concerts

Woodstock, NY,
18 July – 12 September
Tel: +1 646 965 2365

Presciently (but entirely coincidentally), ‘Surviving’ is the theme of this year’s festival in the barn-like woodland concert hall near Woodstock that Maverick calls home. Musicians who have emerged against the odds, such as trailblazing composers Libby Larsen, Florence Price and HIV survivor jazz pianist Fred Hersch, are saluted alongside the music of a Bohemian abroad: Dvořák. The Tesla Quartet makes its Maverick debut, and the Borromeo String Quartet returns.

Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music

Santa Cruz, CA
31 July – 8 August
Tel: +1 831 420 5260

America’s longest running festival of new music (59 seasons and counting) returns with a second series of digital offerings charting themes of ‘resilience, hope and realism’. Curated by artistic director Christian Mãcelaru, works by Jake Heggie, Sean Shepherd and Gabriela Lena Frank receive their world premieres, while guests navigating the photography, animation and videography woven through Cabrillo’s wide-ranging programme include the St Lawrence Quartet, mezzo Sasha Cooke and choreographer/dancer Molly Katzman.

Time:Spans Festival

New York City
12-29 August

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is still ‘contemporary music’ for some, but when Manhattan-based Time:Spans announces its commitment to new music it really does mean new. The concerts take the pulse of 21st-century music, enlisting some of the US’s finest specialist ensembles including New York’s Jack Quartet, Chicago’s Spektral Quartet and, from Pittsburgh, the Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo. The Jacks notch up five world premieres across two appearances, including Amy Williams’s Urquintett for soprano and string quartet; the Spektral Quartet concentrates exclusively on Anthony Cheung; and a sextet of keyboard players are assembled for Taylor Brook’s microtonal Virtutes Occultae.

Ojai Festival

Ojai, CA
16-19 September
Tel: +1 805 646 2053

This year’s June festival has decamped to September and sees composer John Adams at the helm as music director. His own music will feature alongside the work of young American composers such as Gabriella Smith, Samuel Carl Adams and Carlos Simon. A hand-picked ensemble of leading West Coast musicians will do some of the heavy lifting, but there are visitors too – among them Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson, the Attacca Quartet and violinist Miranda Cuckson.

Grand Teton Music Festival

Teton, WY
2 July-21 August

Music director Donald Runnicles opens this year’s season in a concert of music from films such as 2001: A Space OdysseyOut of AfricaFantasiaApocalypse Now and Raiders of the Lost Ark. You can expect seven weeks of performances – one week outdoors and six weeks inside the Walk Festival Hall – with performances from the likes of violinists James Ehnes and Leila Josefowicz, pianist Yefim Bronfman and cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason. There will also be a premiere of a new work by Melody Eötvös and the performance of a new work by Jessie Montgomery.

Sun Valley Music Festival

Sun Valley, ID
26 July-19 August 

Tel: +1 208 622 5607

Guest artists at this year’s Sun Valley Music Festival include violinist Joshua Bell, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, soprano Julia Bullock, pianist Joyce Yang and Mexican ensemble The Villalobos Brothers. Also featured in this year’s line-up is composer Jessie Montgomery, whose new work Five Freedom Songs will receive its world premiere. The season is set over the course of three-and-a-half weeks at the Sun Valley Pavilion in Idaho, kicking off on 26 July. On 2 August, look out for the concert in tribute to frontline heroes in the community.

Best Canadian classical music festivals

Domaine Forget International Festival

Saint-Irénée, Quebec, Canada,
26 June – 21 August

Tel: +1 418 452 3535

Music and dance are integral to a lively Academy that feeds into the soundtrack to a Quebec summer. Situated in Saint-Irénée overlooking the mighty St Lawrence river, Domaine Forget musters over 80 events, ranging from orchestral and chamber concerts to musical Sunday brunches and jazz evenings. With an imposing Sculpture Garden and permanent collection, the visual arts aren’t left out.

Festival of the Sound

Parry Sound, Ontario, Canada,
18 July – 1 August
Tel: +1 866 364 0016

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Since 1985, clarinettist James Campbell has been custodian of what was Ontario’s first summer classical music festival with international ambitions. Thirty-five years on, Parry Sound enjoys three or four performances a day – this year numbered among them concerts by the Rolston and Penderecki string quartets, Cheng2 Duo, The Elmer Iseler Singers and Julie Nesrallah’s ‘Carmen on Tap’. Pop-ups pop up, and ten of Canada’s most distinguished cellists combine for the alarming-sounding ‘Woodshred’.