A weekend in Montreal--at least one like that of November 20, into which I was fortunate enough to air-drop--can seem like a build-your-own festival. Canada loves its fests. And Montreal has more of them than any other city in the country, with over 100 arts, comedy, food and fashion fêtes across the year. While the premiere of the Opéra de Montreal's production of Elektra was the reason for my visit, I was also able to attend the opening concert of the city's Bach Festival and a couple of concerts in the city's fertile (and under recognized) jazz scene. Most everything happens within walking distance of downtown. And meal breaks at Foodlab in the impressive Société des Arts Technologiques building (an excellent gnocchi with roasted Brussels sprout leaves) and the tasty Qing Hua Dumpling in nearby Chinatown, a weekend in downtown Montreal proved to be as enjoyable as it was easily navigable.
Besides being a festival of contemporary composition the likes of which isn't often seen this side of the Atlantic, the Czech Republic's biennial Ostrava Days plays host to a two-week institute for composers and performers, where students get the opportunity to workshop with and have their works reviewed by some of the the major figures invited to the nine days of concerts, which follow on the heels of the institute. But once the festival proper is underway, such hierarchies evaporate, as students perform with and have their work presented alongside the headliners.
Ostrava, a smallish Czech city of some 300,000 people about 10 kilometers from the Polish border, hosts the biennial Ostrava Days, a small festival, itself, but with audiences usually numbering a couple hundred. Both city and fest think big. In recent years, Ostrava has seen a remarkable amount of development via commerce and construction, as well as a laudable push to renovate the industrial facilities if its mining past into theaters, galleries and other art spaces. For its part, Ostrava Days is oriented toward big music--the 2015 edition even featuring a night of works for three orchestras--all the while making room for smaller-scale compositions.
Opéra de Montréal gave that city's first staging of 'Elektra' in November--and the first production ever by a resident Montreal company--finessing a presentation both stark and expansive, starring the brilliant American soprano Lise Lindstrom. Filling the titular role, Lindstrom easily carried the weight of Strauss' demanding single-act, 100-minute opera. But the spotlight wasn't hers alone; she shared it with a massive, 25-foot statue of King Agamemnon and the equally enormous vision of the company's artistic director, Michel Beaulac.
While the biannual Ostrava Days in the Czech Republic features, primarily, a wide array of post-1950 solo and small ensemble pieces, it is, at its heart, a symphonic endeavor--founded and curated by Czech composer/conductor Petr Kotik. Over the course of nine expansive nights in August, running this year from the 21st to the 29th, the festival hosted three different orchestras, and all three together on the first night. The Ostrava-based Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra and resident ensemble Ostravská Banda did plenty of heavy lifting over the course of the fest, with the Miners Band from Stonava (a brass group from that nearby town in coal-mining Moravia) joining them on opening night.