Elora Festival & Me: A Perspective from Historian, Hugh Brewster

Why does music touch us so deeply?

Science claims that music helps secrete serotonin in the brain which elevates and calms us ––an explanation that doesn’t quite do it for me.  Yet one thing I do know is that some of the most stirring musical experiences of my life have occurred at the Elora Festival.  In pondering why, a number of reasons come to mind.

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The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge England

First of all, I’m a sucker for choral music. The sound of a good choir or a great soloist, or both, will move me every time.  Just hearing the Elora Festival Singers perform ‘God Save the Queen’ and ‘O Canada’ at the start of an evening gives me goose bumps. And Noel Edison is such a fine conductor that even a familiar piece like ‘The Heavens Are Telling’ from Haydn’s Creation (which opens this year’s festival on July 11), will sound as if I’m hearing it for the first time.

Secondly, there’s the whole Elora experience.  Typically, I drive to Elora on a glorious summer day along country roads lined with ox-eye daisies. This may be followed by a walk around the gorge and dinner at one of Elora’s fine restaurants. Then a stroll through the village to the Gambrel Barn will put me in a very receptive mood for some glorious music. (Even the line-up for the portable toilets at intermission is usually elevated by the sight of the sun setting behind the village church spires!)

Thirdly, there’s the fact that Noel and the festival staff are truly “bringing the world to Elora” as a past slogan claims. In this small Ontario village, I’ve heard international stars like Kiri te Kanawa, Emma Kirkby, Ben Heppner, Richard Margison (who returns with his daughter on July 19) and the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge (back again on July 13).

And for someone with British roots, joining in lustily on  ‘Rule Britannia’ or ‘Jerusalem’ stirs atavistic feelings, so I’m pleased that The Last Night of the Proms returns on July 26.  And at the ever-popular Hymn Tastings concerts, (this year’s is on July 27.) I always enjoy the congregational singing of hymns that I’ve known since childhood.

Finally, for the last four years it’s been my privilege to actually perform at the Elora Festival.  This claim can startle friends who know that it would be very a bad idea if I were ever to sing in public. So no, I don’t make music but I do help narrate performances for which I write the script and create a screen show. It all began a few years ago with a children’s book of mine entitled Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose which tells the story behind John Singer Sargent’s famous painting of two little girls in white smocks lighting paper lanterns in a garden. The book was set in the beautiful Cotswold village of Broadway, Worcestershire, and one of my fantasies was to perform a dramatic version of the story in the village where it had all happened 135 years before.

Actor, Christopher Newton
Actor, Christopher Newton

The good burghers of Broadway were receptive to the idea, and so a concert performance of Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose launched the first Broadway Arts Festival in June of 2010.  Two amateur actors assisted me with the narration and a group of elderly local singers gamely tackled some Victorian songs.  It was only a moderate success but, undaunted, I proposed to Noel Edison that we remount it in another old stone village on this side of the Atlantic. With a much better choir and professional actors like Christopher Newton and Brigitte Robinson, the show worked like a charm here in 2011.  Afterward, Noel immediately asked, “What are you doing for us next year?”

The next year was the centenary of the 1912 sinking of the Titanic, and a show called Unsinkable! sold out two performances in St. John’s Church. In 2013 we moved to the Gambrel Barn for Crowning Glory which celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation. This year we return to the more intimate venue of St. John’s Church for CANADA FALL IN!: The Great War Remembered in Words, Images and Song on July 19at 1:30 and 4:00. This will be the most powerful show of all since it was during World War I that Canada emerged as a country. I’ve been busily researching long-lost songs like ‘Boys from Canada’ and ‘Canada, Fall In’ that the choir will sing along with more familiar favorites like ‘Tipperary’ and ‘Roses of Picardy.’  And while there are sad moments, please be assured there will be plenty of soldier’s humour amid the pathos.  Book your tickets now as I’d hate for you to miss it.  And I’ll see you at the festival!

Historian, Hugh Brewster
Historian, Hugh Brewster

View the complete 2014 summer concert series program online at www.elorafestival.ca.

Hugh Brewster is the author of 14 books for children and adults and enjoys scripting performances for the Elora Festival.