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Packed schedule to celebrate Music Niagara’s 25th

Launched originally as the Niagara International Chamber Music Festival, Music Niagara is set to celebrate its 25th season with a program of 18 performances between mid-June and the end of August.

Launched originally as the Niagara International Chamber Music Festival, Music Niagara is set to celebrate its 25th season with a program of 18 performances between mid-June and the end of August. 

Founder and artistic director Atis Bankas says he knew 25 years ago that Niagara-on-the-Lake would offer the perfect combination of scenery and history, along with the wineries and the Shaw Festival, that would make it possible to reach such a significant milestone. 

“It was evident right from the start that this was a great place for classical music,” he tells The Local. “It’s been a true labour of love.” 

For a festival that celebrates so much of the music of the past, Music Niagara has always had one foot planted firmly toward the future. The 2023 season is no exception to this rule, featuring as it does the return of the performance academy, through which young musicians are tutored by Bankas and other world-renowned mentors. 

And on slate this summer are three performances at Ironwood Cider House, a new venue when it comes to the festival. 

“It is indeed a very interesting space,” says Bankas. “The acoustics will be great there, with the very high ceilings and the balcony above. It’s going to be really terrific.”

Veteran Shaw performer Peter Millard headlines a Shaw and Music performance at Ironwood on Sunday, July 9. The 74-year-old will lend his gravitas to Shaw’s words related to the composers Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann.

“That’s one of our brands, our trademarks,” says Bankas. “We started that series years ago. This will be the first time for us working with Peter. He agreed right away, as he remembered (late Shaw artistic director) Christopher Newton doing the series.”

On July 23, Ironwood will play host to Music Niagara’s presentation of Ensemble Obiora. Founded on the principles of diversity, discovery and dissemination, Ensemble Obiora brings together musicians from different cultural backgrounds with the goal of increasing their representation on the classical music scene. As well, their program includes unfamiliar works by composers of colour whose contributions have traditionally gone unnoticed.

“They are one of a kind,” Bankas raves. “Their musicians come from across Canada. They played last year at (New York City’s) Carnegie Hall.”

The third Ironwood show and the penultimate concert of the season continues another well-known Music Niagara series, Music and Wine, while celebrating students from Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, where Bankas has been a faculty member since 1982.

There’s a four-day run of pops programming on the schedule July 3 to 6, as Music Niagara Festival takes over Chateau des Charmes Winery each night. 

The series begins with the return of the Fitzgeralds, a high-energy act featuring fiddling and step dancing siblings Tom, Kerry and Julie Fitzgerald. Klezmer-pop mainstays Quartetto Gelato, featuring Music Niagara production manager Colin Maier on oboe, follows on Tuesday. Wednesday will see Steve McDade, a member of both Manteca and Rob McConnell’s Boss Brass since the 1980’s, bring his quintet to the chateau. The week concludes Thursday with popular jazz vocalist and Jazz FM radio host Heather Bambrick. 

The 25th season gets underway on Sunday, June 18 with a performance from the Toronto Youth Choir at St. Mark’s Anglican Church. The following evening, world-renowned
Vietnamese-Canadian classical pianist Dang Thai Son will play works by Debussy, Faure and Chopin at the same venue. 

An evening of baroque music at Grace United Church is scheduled for June 29, featuring Pergolesi’s masterpiece Stabat Mater, with performances by soprano Katelyn Bird, countertenor Massuci Facchini, and British-Canadian baritone Alexander Dobson. The concert will include a string ensemble lead by Dora-nominated conductor Jennifer Tung.

The Odin String Quartet returns to Chateau des Charmes on July 18, while the Toronto All Star Big Band makes their perennial Music Niagara Festival appearance on August 7 at Ravine Estate Winery’s event centre, the first time the festival has presented a performance at Ravine’s new building.

The incredibly talented violinist Emma Meinrenken, a protege of Bankas’, will have a busy weekend in early August. She will be featured in a performance academy recital on Friday, Aug. 11, then play with her Kiri Quartet the following two days, with Sunday’s matinee a Behind the Scenes performance that will allow the audience to see the four young musicians working on their craft. 

“It’s another series we started a long time ago,” says Bankas. “People have loved participating in it. They get an opportunity to experience what happens in preparation, what needs to be worked on. We usually get a full house for these.”

Solomiya Ivakhiv, the Ukrainian-born violinist, associate professor at the University of Connecticut and professor at the Longy School of Music of Bard College, holds a masterclass at Grace United Church on July 29. And the following afternoon sees the return of Glory to Ukraine, a program started by the Lithuanian-born Bankas after the Russian invasion last year.

The season wraps up at St. Mark’s with a grand finale celebrating the 25-year history of the festival on Tuesday, Aug. 29. 

“The first half will feature some young Ukrainian musicians,” Bankas says, “and musicians from Lithuania, playing folk instruments (kankles and birbyne). And the second half will be a great band called Los Variants, who play jazz, reggae, afro-jazz and every other genre that represents the whole mosaic of Canada.” 

And Bankas adds that well-known comedian and former talk show host Mike Bullard will emcee the program that evening.

For information and tickets to the 2023 lineup of shows, visit