Evidently, summer has caught me napping. Last weekend (July 24-25), I was in Stratford, where John Miller, director of Stratford Summer Music, told me that the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Ottawa’s National Arts Centre Orchestra had announced that their joint plans for a summer festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake had been quietly shelved.

This was news to me – and I can’t help thinking that the mid-July announcement was intended to go pretty much unnoticed. However, a little online research brought me up to date: a press release, dated July 13, coyly cited a “complex economic and political environment” for the collapse of the initiative, after five-and-a-half years of planning.

This seems to be a reference to the opposition from some local residents that has plagued the project for several years. And it’s probably also a reference to the estimated $76 million that construction of the site was going to cost – most of it in government funding, from various levels. In plainer English, it was a small but noisy NIMBY group and Nervous Nelly politicians that killed the project.

Before the plug was quietly plugged, the TSO and NACO made glowing comparisons of their vision to the Tanglewood and Salzburg festivals, and predicted that the project would pump $100 million annually into the Ontario economy. Thus, the expenses would be recouped in the first year of operation. After that, the $20 million the festival would cost to run annually would amount to only one-fifth of the revenues it would generate. And since Niagara-on-the-Lake is right on the Canada-US border, much of the festival’s income would have come from visiting Americans, spending dollars that otherwise wouldn't have found their way into the Canadian economy at all.

Am I being oversensitive, or to I smell a whiff of disdain for something as “elitist” and “superfluous” as classical music – mixed, perhaps, with a little Toronto/Ottawa bashing? That would be ironic, since the plan was to establish the festival in a part of the province that already makes big bucks from its wineries, tourism, and of course the Shaw Festival. You’d think that politicians and local residents would have come to understand the benefits – in economic terms, at least – that the arts and culture can bring to a community.

But perhaps the NACO and the TSO presumed too much, and in this there may be a lesson to be learned. Ontario is a big place, and I hope that attempts to establish a major orchestral festival will be renewed. Only next time, the orchestras would do well to first determine that they’re going into an area where they’re entirely wanted, and that they have the political support they need.

Below, you’ll find a group of links that offer information and opinions on this sad story.

Colin Eatock, managing editor





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