Kaimerata 2019: Getting it Right

Kai Gleusteen and Catherine Ordronneau once again pulled off a highly successful Kaimerata Festival August 1st to 4th. In fact, Kai noted, to his wonderment, the Comox concert was very well attended – apparently without any promotion. The Denman Community Hall was filled for the Friday, Saturday and Sunday concerts which this year focused on the chamber and solo piano works of Johannes Brahms. As always, the playing was top notch. Some may think that Kai’s prefatory musical analyses of some pieces are somewhat earnest in length, but there can be no doubt of audience appreciation. Music may be a primarily subjective experience, but people on Denman and Hornby are also hogs for real information, especially from someone who knows what they are talking about.      

The concerts on Denman Island are, in fact, the North American version of Kaimerata.  Based in Barcelona, where Kai is concertmaster of an opera company, Kai and Catherine also give Kaimerata concerts there. The audiences are appreciative, but Kai and Catherine are struck by the warmth of their reception on Denman where they are regarded as one of our own. Even though most of their time is spent in Europe, they thoroughly enjoy their summer sojourn on Denman with Kai’s parents, Harold and Elfi Gleusteen. 

Funded entirely from ticket sales and private resources, Kaimerata is very much Kai’s own festival. His effervescent enthusiasm for the music and joyful audience engagement brands the festival with a personal stamp, balanced by the gracious yet passionate artistry of Catherine. But Kaimerata’s success is not just about the choice of music or stellar performance. Over time, the problem with all musical festivals is sustainability. Kai and Catherine keep Kaimerata to four days and works that do not require more than four or five performers. They resist the temptations of growth. Other festivals start to expand and can eventually collapse under the sheer weight of funding applications, a burgeoning program, all the logistics of bookings, finding players and instruments, accommodations, publicity, and ticket sales, especially where these are reliant on volunteer support.  It is an achievement in itself that Kaimerata is now ten years old and going strong.

Kaimerata’s musical program is not beholden to anyone except the interests of Kai and Catherine – and public taste. In preparing for each concert series, they learn all they can about the composers they intend to play, reading biographies that, Kai points out, often reveal pieces which were unknown to them. They study the scores closely, gradually coming to understand the peculiarities of musical notation that composers have used to give personal expression to their intent. The focus is largely on the works of the great composers of the 18th and 19th centuries. But Kai was at one point, deeply involved in the musical life of Paris where there were serious factions about contemporary music led by such powerful figures as the composer, withering champion, and renowned conductor Pierre Boulez. Kai would really like to present works by such twentieth century greats as Arnold Schoenberg, but the fact is, his audiences are musically orthodox and joyfully conservative. Even a suggestion to include some pieces by Maurice Ravel was queried in Barcelona as “comercial”. The musical analysis that precedes some of the major works are intended to educate the public, but it is questionable if this does anything more to move the needle of taste than to deepen appreciation of what listeners already know and love. There is nothing quite like curiosity about the familiar.

Like many professional classical musicians, Kai is concerned about the ageing of the audience in the West. Yet, music faculties and academies are full of aspiring young musicians. The audience at Victoria’s Pacific Opera performances may be grey-haired in large part, but the stage is full of young singers. Demographically, it can be argued that the ageing of the population favours classical music but professional classical musicians are no longer on the pedestal they once were.  Kai points out that, ironically, China presents quite the opposite picture. He and Catherine travel there to give performances to audiences of a thousand people, including young couples actually going to a concert on a date. The interest in Western classical music is huge, with a steady flood of Chinese musical prodigies and a seemingly bottomless market for pianos.  When they are in China, however, they also perform contemporary Chinese music which is taken as an enormous compliment. Considering how much Western music is played by Chinese, it seems the very least one can do.

There is no doubt that chamber music, in the right venue like the Denman Community Hall, or a private home like the Lady Slipper house concerts sponsored by Robert Newton and Andrew Fyson, offer a more intimate, inviting experience that is also at far less cost to producers and audience than works involving more extensive ensembles. Maybe chamber concerts are the way to go. Kai points out that there is a chamber music festival in Ottawa where people attend concerts one after another, with performances from morning to late at night, comparing tickets like baseball cards to see how many they have attended. It’s weird but encouraging.

The view from Harold Gleusteen’s elegant house at the top of Corrigal Road, with its long gaze over open fields, shelving steps, and interesting artwork, offers peaceful reassurance, oddly at variance with Kai’s ambitious energy, contrasted, yet again, by Catherine working quietly on watercolours. It’s a combination that bodes well for Kaimerata and captures something of Denman Island itself.   

This article is based on a video interview with Kai. Check it on the Grapevine website.

Anthony Gregson sits with Kai Gleusteen

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