Edmonton Cantando Festival

When the Cantando Festival descends upon the Winspear Centre from Sunday to Tuesday (April 7 to 9), it will be the 21st time it has done so. When Francis Winspear expressed the hope that the concert hall that would eventually bear his name be a true centre for music in the community, this is exactly the kind of thing he was talking about.

The Edmonton Cantando Festival started in 1999, the brainchild of Dennis Prime, a musician and educator who headed up the Alberta College Conservatory, and played clarinet around town a lot. The idea was to give young musicians a chance to come together with other young musicians, and get a chance to make music in a truly magnificent performance space. Each year, the Cantando Festival takes over the stage, lobbies, back hallways, and broom closets (well, not really, but close) of the Winspear Centre – bringing over 2000 students from all over the world. A quick bit of math shows the totals roughly 40,000 in 20 years. “It is a wonderful opportunity for them to perform here and to see their eyes light up when they hear that first note on stage is something they will never forget (and hopefully come back and visit Edmonton and hear the ESO in later years),” Prime says. “Students also get a chance to hear local and guest university and professional ensembles during the evening concerts at the festival.”

This year’s anniversary event will be celebrated in part with the world premiere of a work commissioned by the Festival and composed by Allan Gilliland (former ESO Composer in Residence and now Dean of the Fine Arts Faculty at MacEwan University). It will be performed by James Walker, former Principal Flute of the Los Angeles Phlharmonic and an outstanding jazz player as well – and he’ll be accompanied by the Faculty Big Band of MacEwan University.

Cantando is a festival for young musicians, performing in front of their peers. “One of my favorite memories of Cantando performances includes one by the University of Pretoria Youth Choir joined with the University of Saskatchewan Jazz Ensemble,” Prime tells us. “To hear a performance by two groups from two completely different parts of the world was spellbinding.”

As a performance home of one of Canada’s finest professional orchestras, the Winspear Centre can be justifiably proud. As the venue of choice for some of the finest performers in all aspects of the arts is a further testament to the hall as an integral part of Edmonton’s entertainment scene. But as the yearly home of a bunch of boisterous, enthusiastic, vending machine-emptying young people – whose experience here might take an interest in music and kindle it into a true and lasting passion – the Winspear Centre is truly realizing its vision.

D.T. Baker