Juno Award-winning and internationally celebrated violinist Mark Fewer has a genre-bending style and a mind-bending career.
He’s performed the world over and is celebrated and highly regarded in the fields of classical, chamber, orchestral, folk and jazz, just to name a few. Now, he’s wearing a new hat — that of the artistic director of the Stratford Summer Music Festival, a six-week festival happening right now in Stratford, Ont., that’s known for its excellence and wide-ranging programming.
Fewer is now adding his own touch to this year’s festival. He joined us in the JAZZ.FM91 studios to chat about what it takes to lead such a long and busy event, why it’s challenging to get people to spend money on music in the age of the Internet, and why he wants jazz to take up a larger spot in the festival.
Scroll to the bottom if you’d like to listen to the full audio of the interview.
First of all, congratulations. The festival is booming, it is rolling along. I’ve got the program in front of me and I’ve been checking it out, and holy smokes.
I know. We’ve got 100 events over 42 days. It’s busy. But it’s been great. It’s been a learning curve because I’ve never been the boss of something this massive before. I’ve curated events and festivals, but a six-week festival is a big commitment. I’m just lucky I’ve got a great team behind me.
What are some of the challenges that you face with something of this magnitude?
These days, with music being so devalued in our society, mostly through Internet usage, the idea of people paying money to go see an event — actually buying a ticket — that’s a big deal. But Stratford prides itself on being a smaller community with a massive arts profile. If you look at the numbers, the statistic I saw that was incredible to me before I took on the job was that in a population of around 32,000 … about 4,000-plus identify themselves as fully employed through the arts. That’s unbelievable. That also means that people who do come to our events, they generally are pretty cultured and they know what’s up. That means that when you’re putting 100 events together, you can’t put 100 crappy shows out there. You’ve got to do good stuff. Of course, that’s what we want as musicians. We want to be able to do really great things. But it’s the same everywhere: Sometimes getting people to come to events, that’s a challenge.
One of the things I know you do is you like to combine. You put acts together in a particular way. Has that been a bit of a mandate for you in programming this year’s festival?
Oh, definitely. I shy away from the prepackaged act, in general. It doesn’t mean that I dislike them, but I don’t really buy into that so much. That’s a shift in the programming this year. I am doing things where we bring in artists like you and Jodi Proznick, artists from either coast — Newfoundland and Vancouver — two great friends of mine. That type of thing I adore seeing. And the audiences, when they’re exposed to an on-the-scene collaboration … then I think a certain kind of audience member goes, “Wow, this was really spectacular.”
What have some of the highlights been, and what do you have coming up that you’re really looking forward to?
Well, one of the things I wanted to do moving forward from where my predecessor John Miller left things, I wanted to put a little more jazz into the calendar. We do have a really spectacular location: the Revival House. It doesn’t get better than that. Just about anywhere in the world, that’s my ideal jazz club right there. I couldn’t describe it in words fairly. As a vibe, when you walk into that place, you’re transported back to an imaginary version of 1950s New York art-deco jazz club. It’s a perfect example of that. So, I wanted to make that series almost exclusively jazz, and moving forward I really want to make that one of the country’s top destinations for jazz.
I also wanted to put in a little bit more chamber music, because that’s a lot of my background. Like jazz, chamber music is about people with open ears, letting anybody else in the ensemble shine when it’s their turn to shine. That’s a slightly different aesthetic than when you’re hiring a big name to do their big-name thing, because all the eyes go on the big name. We still do that, of course, because it’s a music festival and we’ve got all sorts of big names that we’d love to bring to the community. But I feel like long-term, a successful music festival that’s going to be around for 40 or 50 years, it’s the one that tends to the slow burn instead of the fast burn. Let’s say I bring in Herbie Hancock next year — which could happen. But that would take up so much attention from everybody, and so much energy that everything else is forgotten. Because I’ve also been an educator for so many years, I love seeing students bring their best out. And if you give kids a regular opportunity to feel like they have something to contribute in the arts and if they have a voice of their own in music, if they feel safe to bring that out, then I think you’re succeeding in a really great music festival.
You say yes to a lot of things. You’re teaching at the University of Toronto. You still play. You’re still travelling and touring all over the world. Now, you’re wearing this new hat with the Stratford Summer Music Festival. How do you maintain the balance?
Well, sometimes I fail miserably. I think that’s how I maintain it. The way it works is you basically operate your life at about 110-per-cent capacity, and that means that on average about three or four times a year, everything falls to pieces and you deflate down to about 95-per-cent capacity. That lasts for the better part of a week, and after that’s over you go back to 110 per cent.
This interview has been edited and condensed.