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
Published: May 12, 2022 at 3:24 pm

Best classical music festivals in America

Gilmore Piano Festival

Kalamazoo, MI, 24 April – 15 May

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Tel. +2 269 342 1166

Web: www.thegilmore.org

Biennial Gilmore sees things in black and white – the keys of the piano, that is! No one could accuse it of narrow-mindedness, though. Igor Levit, Daniil Trifonov and Beatrice Rana might be soaking up Michigan’s hospitality, but the opening night goes to jazz legend Herbie Hancock. Chopin stalks recitals by Rana, Jan Lisiecki and Emanuel Ax; concertos enlist four guest orchestras; and the finale stages a 3:2:1 countdown: Bach’s Triple Concerto BWV1063, Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos, and Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 performed by Ingrid Fliter.

Long Play Festival

Brooklyn, NYC, 29 April – 1 May

Tel. +1 718 852 7755

Web: www.bangonacan.org

From Loud Weekend to summer’s two-week festival at MASS MoCA, there’s no stopping the irrepressible Bang on a Can – they introduced themselves back in 1987 with an epic day-long Marathon, after all. Long Play promises ‘more kinds of musicians playing more kinds of music’. The music straddles John Luther Adams and Stockhausen, Brian Eno, Captain Beefheart and Ornette Coleman. Performers include the Attacca Quartet, Noise Saxophone Quartet and, of course, the Bang on a Can All Stars.

May Festival

Cincinnati, OH, 20-28 May

Tel. +1 513 381 3300

Web: www.mayfestival.com

Next year notches up the 150th anniversary of the very first May Festival, and the Festival Chorus remains key to what is styled as the longest continuously running choral festival in the Western Hemisphere. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 crowns a programme bestriding the Americas, Katharina Wincor makes her festival debut conducting Bernstein’s Candide, and Juanjo Mena heads south to conduct Ginastera, Villa-Lobos and Estévez. To open, it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas as John Adams spearheads his Nativity oratorio El Niño.

Spoleto Festival USA

Charleston, SC, 27 May – 12 June

Tel. +1 843 579 3100

Web: www.spoletousa.org

Composer Gian Carlo Menotti knew what he was doing when he alighted on Charleston in which to establish a US answer to his Italian festival in Spoleto. Its old-world elegance delights, especially at festival time. Menotti the opera composer would doubtless cheer on the world premiere of Omar by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels, a slave tale close to home; and, in the Gaillard Center, Puccini’s La bohème will be re-imagined. Ligeti’s Piano Concerto is framed by the US premieres of works by Edmund Thornton Jenkins and Anna Thorvaldsdottir; and the Spoleto Festival USA Chorus takes an inaugural bow with works by Bruckner, Brahms and Britten.

Ravinia Festival

Highland Park, IL,
June – September (dates TBC)

Tel. +1 847 266 5100

Web: www.ravinia.org

Marin Alsop returns to Ravinia as chief conductor at the head of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. And she’s bringing a compact ‘Breaking Barriers’ Festival this year celebrating women conductors – as well as music such as Michael Daugherty’s Time Machine for three conductors and Bernstein’s ‘Kaddish’ Symphony. Elsewhere, Alsop conducts Beethoven, Richard Strauss, and, featuring soprano Yeree Suh and baritone Matthias Goerne, Brahms’s German Requiem.

Come As You Are

Atlanta, Georgia, 2-19 June

Tel. +1 404 881 8801

Web: www.atlantaopera.org

Whoever said opera is a museum culture hasn’t told Atlanta Opera. In the run up to its Come As You Are festival, Mason Bates’s The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs lifts the lid on the founder of Apple. And in the Big Tent, bolstered by panel discussions and talkbacks, the musical Cabaret is interleaved with Laura Kaminsky’s transgender chamber opera As One. Baritone Lucia Lucas is ‘Hannah Before’, and mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert is ‘Hannah After’.

Ojai Festival

Ojai, CA, 9-12 June

Tel. +1 805 646 2094

Web: www.ojaifestival.org

John Adams oversaw last year’s 75th- anniversary edition – relocated to September. And AMOC (American Modern Opera Company) is in the driving seat as June normality returns. Not that ‘normality’ is the word where the ever-dynamic, re-inventing Ojai is concerned. Newly composed works include Family Dinner by Matthew Aucoin and the echoing of tenses, a specially commissioned song cycle by Anthony Cheung. Soprano Julia Bullock stars in a semi-staging of Messiaen’s Harawi, and early music ensemble Ruckus reinvigorates the Baroque.

Music Academy of the West

Santa Barbara, CA, 13 June – 6 August

Tel. +1 805-969-4726

Web: www.musicacademy.org

Otto Klemperer and Lotte Lehmann were early supporters of a summer school and festival that’s in celebratory mood. For its 75th birthday, Santa Barbara parties in style with a ‘Welcome Concert’ in the Bowl, not to mention a gala featuring three-times Grammy Award winner, mezzo Isabel Leonard. Opera returns to the Festival with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin; and among those California dreamin’ are conductors Stéphane Denève and Hannu Lintu, plus composers Nico Muhly and Tom Cipullo.

Tanglewood

Lenox, MA, 17 June – 4 September

Tel. +1 617 266 1200

Web: www.tanglewood.org

Tanglewood’s backstory can be traced in the names of its concert halls, from the orchestral focus of the Koussevitzky Music Shed to Seiji Ozawa Hall, award-winning home to much of the summer’s chamber music. Ringo Starr fires the starting pistol and, under Andris Nelsons, the Boston Symphony’s opening night acknowledges a towering Tanglewood stalwart – Leonard Bernstein. Among eight world and US premieres are works by Helen Grime and Caroline Shaw, Mozart’s Don Giovanni issues a deadly dinner invitation and pianist Emanuel Ax and friends pursue ‘Pathways from Prague’ while Garrick Ohlsson readies himself for the complete piano works of Brahms.

Oregon Bach Festival

Eugene, OR, 17 June – 5 July

Tel. +1 541 346 5666

Web: www.oregonbachfestival.org

There’s a gladiatorial frisson as OBF returns to live performance. Three contenders are in the frame for the artistic directorship, and each will conduct a major work and be put through their chamber music paces. The B minor Mass and the John and Matthew Passions are the Bachian pillars anchoring the likes of The Musical Offering directed by Monica Huggett. But Bach isn’t the only composer in town. Paola Prestini’s Let Me See The Sun receives its premiere; Tyler Duncan sings Schubert’s Winterreise; and Akoka ‘reframes’ Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.

Caramoor Festival

Katonah, NY, 18 June – 7 August

Tel. +1 914 232 1252

Web: www.caramoor.org

From intimate beginnings, Caramoor has grown, its ambitions consummated in the creation of an airy Venetian Theater and atmospheric Spanish Courtyard to complement the Music Room’s opulence. Summer ’22 should go with a bang as Michael Gordon’s site-specific Field of Vision for 40 percussionists is premiered. Yo-Yo Ma and The Knights signal the off; soprano Dawn Upshaw and the Brentano Quartet collaborate on Melinda Wagner’s monodrama Dido Reimagined; and Marc-André Hamelin ends the season royally with Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto.

Bard Summerscape and Music Festival

Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, 23 June – 14 August

Tel. +1 845 758 7900

Web: www.fishercenter.bard.edu

Sheltering beneath Summerscape’s cross-disciplinary umbrella, the 32nd Bard Music Festival is devoted to ‘Rachmaninov and his World’. The ‘Whose century?’ concert provocatively sets Piano Concerto No. 4 in the context of Respighi, Grofé, Shostakovich and Messiaen; and the Vespers should apply balm to the soul. Richard Strauss’s comic opera Die schweigsame Frau, conducted by Leon Botstein and directed by Christian Räth, lightens the mood, while Molière’s 400th is not forgotten.

Bravo! Vail

Vail, CO, 23 June – 4 August

Tel. +1 877 812 5700

Web: www.bravovail.org

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra returns to augment the reigning Bravo triumvirate of the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Dallas Symphony. Six weeks of full-on music making follows, and a new commissioning project yields three world premieres to add to the tally of eight local premieres. Paired with wine-tasting, ‘classically uncorked’ toasts ear-opening juxtapositions, while from New York hails Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony; Philadelphia humours Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben; and choice chamber music implicates artists-in-residence Hélène Grimaud and Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider.

Aspen Music Festival and School

Aspen, CO, 30 June – 21 August

Tel. +1 970 925 3254

Web: www.aspenmusicfestival.com

It’s just as well that Aspen stakes a claim on the Benedict Music Tent, intimate Joan and Irving Harris Concert Hall and the Wheeler Opera House. With over 400 concerts spread across eight weeks, it doesn’t let the grass grow under its feet. Renée Fleming sings Kevin Puts’s The Brightness of Light; Bryn Terfel heads the cast for Verdi’s Falstaff; and Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy preoccupies Vasily Petrenko. To end, there’s a sacred showstopper like no other: conceived for a huge orchestra corralling four offstage brass groups, Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts is conducted by Robert Spano.

Colorado Music Festival

Boulder, CO, 30 June – 7 August

Tel. +1 303 440 7666

Web: www.coloradomusicfestival.org

Hunkering down in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, the Chautauqua Auditorium has been welcoming visitors for well over a century. In summertime it convenes members of over 40 national and international orchestras, who assemble under conductor Peter Oundjian for a festival that matches its spectacular surrounds. John Adams is this year’s composer-in-residence and his Beethoven-inflected Absolute Jest for string quartet and orchestra falls to artists-in-residence the Takács Quartet on the first night. Jan Lisiecki undertakes a complete Beethoven piano concerto cycle, and the Colorado premiere of a fanfare by Wynton Marsalis heralds Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.

Santa Fe Opera

Santa Fe, NM, 1 July – 27 August

Tel. +1 505 986 5900

Web: www.santafeopera.org

Love is in the air, and with fatal consequences as a new production of Carmen launches another summer of opera under a New Mexico sky. Love can contrive a happy ending, however, or so insists Rossini’s The Barber of Seville; and there’s guile aplenty in Verdi’s Falstaff, directed by David McVicar. But love is writ large and tragically as Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde makes its belated House debut. Simon O’Neill and Tamara Wilson take the title rolls and the staging, conducted by James Gaffigan, is by Zack Winokur and Lisenka Heijboer Castañón. Completing the line-up is Madam Butterfly, Huang Ruo’s operatic take on David Henry Hwang’s Tony Award-winning play.

Maverick Concerts

Woodstock, NY, 1 July – 11 September

Tel. +1 845 241 7721

Web: www.maverickconcerts.org

Set in dappled woodland, Maverick’s iconic barnlike concert hall has been dispensing chamber music (and, latterly, jazz and contemporary music) for over a century. The name isn’t worn lightly. This year’s theme is ‘Freedom and Joy’, making bedfellows of Duke Ellington and Haydn. ‘Voices of colour’ is also part of the characteristically eclectic remit. The Nexus ensemble celebrates its half-century, and to a roster of string quartets – including the Escher, Harlem and Borromeos – are added oud virtuoso Simon Shaheen and jazzers including Jerome Jennings. And César Franck’s bicentenary does not go unremarked.

Blossom Music Festival

Cuyahoga Falls, OH, 2 July – 4 September

Tel. +1 216 231 1111

Web: www.clevelandorchestra.com

Since 1968, the Cleveland Orchestra has spent summers in the bucolic Cuyahoga National Park, opening the Blossom Pavilion with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The Ninth returns, conducted by Jahja Ling, as the Festival nears its midpoint. Copland’s Symphony No. 3 and John Adams’s Harmonielehre share the season with the Paul Simon Songbook and a salute to ‘Broadway Legends’, while visiting pianists namecheck Daniil Trifonov, Cédric Tiberghien and Benjamin Grosvenor.

Grand Teton Music Festival

Jackson Hole, WY, 3 July – 27 August

Tel. +1 307 733 3050

Web: www.gtmf.org

‘Opera is one of my greatest passions’ declares artistic director Donald Runnicles. No surprise there. Since 2007 he’s been Generalmusikdirektor of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, and Puccini’s La bohème inaugurates an ongoing opera initiative – a new venture for the Festival Orchestra which announces itself

with Beethoven’s five piano concertos performed by Garrick Ohlsson over two nights. Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony and the US premiere of Detlev Glanert’s Idyllium complement chamber music from the St Lawrence Quartet and a new piano recital series.

Glimmerglass Festival

Cooperstown, NY, 8 Jul – 21 August

Tel. +1 607 547 2255

Web: www.glimmerglass.org

Glimmerglass took to its lawns to maintain an al fresco season last summer, but this year the Alice Busch Opera Theater opens its lakeside doors once more. Artistic director Francesca Zambella stands down when the final curtain falls, but she takes her leave with a new production of The Sound of Music; and, proving there’s life in the old pasticcio genre yet, she co-directs the premiere of Tenor Overboard, a frothy confection stuffed with some of Rossini’s best tunes. Briana Hunter stars in a new staging of Carmen.

Saratoga Performing Arts Center

Saratoga Springs, NY, 12 July – 13 August

Tel. +1 518 584 9330

Web: https://spac.org

The Philadelphia Orchestra and New York City Ballet return to their summer home at Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, NY.

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s residency includes twelve unique programs including a finale featuring Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony led by Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, appearances by Yo-Yo Ma and Joshua Bell, GRAMMY nominee Ledisi singing the music of Nina Simone, pianist and NPR Host Lara Downes playing Florence Price, 26-year-old violinist Randall Goosby, and Soprano Angel Blue.

New York City Ballet returns with four programs including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and additional works by Balanchine, Robbins, Cunningham, Peck, Tanowitz and Roberts.

Music@Menlo

Menlo, CA, 14 July – 6 August

Tel. +1 650 330 2030

Web: www.musicatmenlo.org

Founded by cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han, Menlo has taken its mission to explain exuberantly to heart for 20 summers now, and the anniversary edition trains its forensic expertise on Haydn. Wrapped around a core concert programme that makes ‘Hunt’ Quartet conspirators of Haydn and Widmann, and tackles humour in Ives, Schnittke and Shostakovich, the festival’s signature Overture Concerts, Encounter Lectures, Carte Blanche recitals and morning sessions establish an illuminating backstory.

Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music

Santa Cruz, CA, 24 July – 7 August

Tel. +1 831 426 6966

Web: www.cabrillomusic.org

After nearly a quarter of a century at the helm as artistic director, Marin Alsop passed the baton to Christian Mãcelaru in 2016, and Cabrillo remains a byword for its vibrant championship of the new (John Adams and Copland are past occupants of the hot seat). 2022’s premieres includes works by Jake Heggie, Stacy Garrop and Ivan Enrique Rodriguez; guests include mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, violinist Benjamin Beilman and vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth.

Sun Valley Music Festival

Sun Valley, ID, 24 July – 18 August

Tel. +1 208 622 5607

Web: www.svmusicfestival.org

How better to end a festival inhabiting Idaho’s answer to the Alps than Strauss’s Alpine Symphony? And having assembled the requisite horn players, why wouldn’t you round up 16 of them for a chamber concert ‘Hornucopia’! Leila Josefowicz plays Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto; Daniil Trifonov, the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2; and, paired with Ravel’s complete Mother Goose ballet, Nicholas Phan sings Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.

Best Canadian classical music festivals

Domaine Forget International Festival

Sainte-Irénée, Québec, Canada, 25 June – 20 August

Tel. +1 418 452 8111

Web: www.domaineforget.com

For nearly half a century, festival goers have been making their way to the heights of Saint-Irénée, overlooking the St Lawrence River. Some 12,000 visitors flocked last year, attracted by the open vistas, the famous Sculpture Garden, and a feast of music and dance enriched by the superlative Academy. Helping to shape a Québécois summer this year are conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, flautist Emmanuel Pahud, pianist Louis Lortie and Les Violons du Roi.

Ottawa Chamberfest

Ottawa, Canada, 21 July – 4 August

Tel. +1 613 234 6306

Web: www.chamberfest.com

It started as a modest event slaking a classical music thirst during the drought days of summer – and how it’s grown! Chamberfest’s outreach Buzz strand includes ‘Chamber Pint’, one initiative among many in a year-round programme. But the summer festival remains central with some 120 concerts across churches, museums, galleries and heritage sites. It even has its own Fringe – check the website for details.

Festival D’Opéra de Québec

Québec, Canada, 24 July – 4 August

Tel. +1 418 529 4142

Web: www.festivaloperaquebec.com

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The city’s opera festival launched in 2011 with an expanded take on Stravinsky’s The Nightingale, and it continues to do things a little differently – this year a chariot of singers criss-crosses the city revisiting moments in the company’s history. Gounod’s Faust crowns a literary thrust to the programme, which fashions a children’s operetta from three Andersen fairy tales and premieres Eric Champagne’s music theatre piece on the life of writer Marguerite Yourcenar.

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