Quebec City Summer Festival Review - An Assortment of Eclectic Fun

The 42nd  Annual Quebec City Summer Festival (presented by Bell in collaboration with Molson Dry ) showcases rock, blues, jazz, hip hop, punk, heavy metal, opera and theatre  performances by an eclectic mix of international stars, emerging artists, a Cirque du Soleil troupe, and an amazing wealth of “street art” talent. Staged in venues around the city . . . from outdoor stages with extravagant state of the art sound and video effects to a gravely lot, under a highway overpass ( Cirque du Soleil), onto the streets of the old city, and in intimate clubs and pubs. Innovative creator Robert Lepage projects his exciting “ Moulay Image” (a theatrical show that traces Quebec’s 400 year history) on a series of drain pipes on the side of old grain silos in the old port. 

Summer Festivsl 2009 official poster

This year’s two week festival, July 9th to July 20th featured an incredible lineup: from the amazing French cult group Indochine to the legendary Styx, Kiss, Sting and opera legend Placido Domingo . . .  to four time Grammy nominee Buckwheat Zydeco, Ice Cube, and  Ray Bonneville, blues singer and guitarist . . .  to mention but a few. For the first time at the Festival, the contemporary dance company, Danse K par K is presenting their highly acclaimed show Osez

It is a monumental task to negotiate contracts with agents around the world, and to deal with the logistics and demands of such a wide cross of musical personalities; Daniel Geinas, Ouebec's City Summer Festival’s General Director and his staff deserve a standing ovation for their efforts.     

Wednesday, July 15th

The hour and a half Continental flight from Newark to Quebec City is smooth and easy. After checking into my room at the Hilton Hotel, I head to the press room to get my credentials that will give me carte blanche entrée into all the venues. 

I check into the Hilton

The Placido Domingo press conference in the Grand Theatre De Quebec is casual; Virginia Tola, a young soprano from Argentina who will take center stage with him Friday evening, sits by his side. Placido charms the press speaking softly in French; he has mellowed since I last was in his presence in New York. He tells me in English “I saw the people’s love of opera and music so I knew I had to come; it was an opportunity for the people of Quebec to discover me, but it was difficult; I was singing in Russia and now have to go back to Verona. The world of opera is very complicated; contracts are signed 4 or 5 years ahead”.

Quebec is one big happening; Canadians love and support their festivals, and the streets are packed with people, especially Rue Saint Jean, a narrow street lined with restaurants, cafes and shops.

Shopping on the streets

Ouebec is its people

It is closed to traffic tonight. Louis Moubarak, a journalist from Montreal and I discover Au Petit Coin  Breton at #1029, a unique third generation creperie; we settle into seats at their outdoor sidewalk café; dine on crepes stuffed with cheese and asparagus and crisp salads we wash down with a good red table wine. It is the perfect place to watch the passing parade of what is called “ Les arts de la rue” or “ street art”. Odd characters stroll the street provoking unexpected situations and reactions; stilt walkers interact with jugglers; it’s a wild and wacky fantasy world where spectators become part of the show.  There is something for everyone in the planned and spontaneous, amusing, clever and creative street performances. I am enraptured with the minstrels and actors working the crowd, inventing on the spot, with something in mind, but more creativity than script. A huge blue draped sheet starts to move to music; the sheet is ripped open from the inside and a beautiful girl emerges joined by weird looking creatures on stilts that interact with the young maiden.  Three ladies in fabulous colorful costumes perched on stilts pass, bowing and posing for the cheering crowd. The level of street talent is so out of the box, almost beyond the realm of the thinkable.

Street art is a highlight of Summer Festival

Street minstrels amuse and scare their audience

Robert Lepage, playwright, actor and film director, is one of Canada’s most appreciated treasures. For Quebec’s 400th Anniversary (2008) he created The Image Mill, the biggest outdoor architectural projection ever made in the world. In forty minutes, Robert Lepage and Ex Machina celebrate four centuries of human and materiel development right where the river narrows, on the banks of  Bassin Louise, using the huge surface of the Bunge grain elevators as a giant screen. More than an historic tableau, The Image Mill is a light-hearted and lively illustration in three dimensions of the city's past, present and future; it is a mosaic of icons, sounds and ideas covering four great epochs in the progress of Québec City . . . The age of waterways and exploration -The age of roads and settlement -The age of railroads and development -The age of air travel and communication. The Image remains a highlight of Quebec’s summer calendar.

Ray Bonneville, a guitar player and singer who is here from Austin, Texas, has been playing music all his life. “I’m hooked up on the grove; when I wake up my songs are rattling around in my head, working behind the scenes; then I stop and write them down. My music is informed and influenced by blues. My record company calls me “a blues poet”.  New Orleans was a big influence; I wrote a song after the storm “ I am the Big Easy”; it is the city of New Orleans talking to the world”. Ray has written close to 90 songs, and had six albums produced.  “I am going deeper into my music; my nomad adventures are behind me and I want to open doors to greater exposure”. I just signed with a new label, J.K. Living, actor Matthew McConaughey created for me. We’re on the map again, and I love it”. 

Mishka, and his group of five are here from the UK; he took up the guitar in the mid 90’s, singing predominantly reggae with a folk/soul element. He has written 35 songs and recorded three albums; a single from one is the first UK label in the world to reach the top ten in Japan. I’d like everybody to hear my music; I would love it to blow up”.


Thursday, July 16th

After a full day of wandering the city, and dinner at a charming bistro with Louie and his family who have arrived from Montreal, I decide to hit the Kiss Concert late in order to catch “ The Invisible Road”, a Cirque du Soleil production that runs from June 24th to August 24th.

The main stage on Plains of Abraham. Waiting for the concert to begin

Behind the scenes before the show

Kiss

 It is free to all, and a testimony to the creator who found an ugly empty gravely lot under a highway overpass, and had the vision to turn it into something beautiful. It is breathtaking to witness the special visual effects, acrobats, aerialists, flame throwers and jugglers who are part of this outdoor production; the audience stands, moving from one set to the next; when one performance ends, the stage darkens and another is lit. 

Friday Morning, July 17th

Behind The Scenes: I Develop My Appreciation For The Talent Behind The Talent

I walk over to the Plains of Abraham to check out what goes on behind the scenes in preparation for Domingo Placido's performance tonight at 8:30.  What goes on before the audience arrives is a show in itself; the art and talent that goes into fine tuning and tweaking the sound system, the lights, video cameras and projection screens takes patience and a rapport with each artist. It is often a frustrating process for a group to arrive in town and work with local technicians who may or may not have heard their music before.

I meet Leurent Rouctier, the visual designer responsible for lights and video. He tells me:”When we don’t have a set it acts like a set: it is a long effort; we start in February; we need to create video effects that will fit with any kind of show. Those black boxes raised over the stage go up and down to project the video effects.  Its festival so we can’t go really fuzzy for just rock and roll; we have to build something that works for everyone and the different tempos of music, whether its Domingo’s 60 piece orchestra or a smaller group. Most main acts bring their own lighting designers because they travel from festival to festival. Kiss brings his own people to rig the effects; there’s space in the ceiling to rig 20 or 40 feet up and down; that’s the visual, artistic and technical challenge. Domingo brought his own lighting technician, and I will do the video; we work together, plan ahead, but may change if it; we will work together in a booth over the audience; if one color doesn’t work with one song, we can change it for the next; I am both relieved and impressed; it will be fun and we will have a blast, which makes my job more interesting”. 

The video effects are amazing

Soprana Virginia takes the stage

In the afternoon I walk to the Metro Stage, inside the old city wall; it’s much smaller than the main stage on The Plains of Abraham, but the venue for many performers.  I am here to meet the Buckwheat Zydeco‘s group and interview Buckwheat. I stand backstage watching them go through their sound checks. There is a special language between musicians and the tech guys they work with on the road that my untrained ear does not hear. Buckwheat's son Reginald is at the electric organ: He calls out,” can you spread this to the drummer; two one two, two one two”. He moves to the washboard, working one instrument at a time.

Buckwheat straps on his accordian

Buckwheat arrives for a final sound check; he struts onto the stage wearing python boots and a flashing smile, removes his jacket and straps on an accordion; it is obvious this perfectionist means business; he has been at his craft and on the road for 30 years. When he is finally satisfied, he puts his jacket back on, thanks the crew and smiles. I follow him down to his dressing room. Buckwheat is a delicate soul who plays with focus and conviction; he has journeyed far from his home in Lafayette, Louisiana, but not always uphill. He is on the road ten months of the year, most often playing one nighters. He tells me: “I love what I do. What keeps me going is putting a smile on peoples’ faces, even if it’s for a few moments; then I know my job is being done.  I am into blues, but there are many different categories. They nominated me for four Grammies but didn’t know what category to place me in”.

Buckwheat Zydeco sound check on Metro Stage

Buckwheat is a humble man, not always confident or sure of his audience.  Like his music, and the songs he has written and recorded, Buckwheat has lived the bitter and the sweet; and I am sure his life and his work will continue to be a melodious sound mix, and a melancholy lament. The lyrics of his new album: “Why can’t we live together? We need peace, love and happiness” says it all. We share a hug and he leaves me with these thoughts: “What you don’t understand, don’t criticize . . .  wonder where you are going, but don’t forget where you’ve been”.

Friday Evening, July 17th

I get to the press booth early, and settle into a folding chair; several photographers and a film crew with huge cameras are setting up. The show is being broadcast live on paid television.  The audience of 60,000 is so still, you can hear a pin drop when maestro Placido Domingo takes the stage and begins with the prelude to Carmen, accompanied by the Symphony Orchestra of Quebec. What follows are arias and songs from some of his favorite operas, operettas, Broadway shows and romantic classics: such as: “ Some Enchanted Evening”, “ Besame Mucho”, “ Granada” and “ La Liberta”. Soprano Virginia Tola sings several solos, including three in Spanish, her native language.  Her rendition of “ I Could Have Danced All Night” is light and charming. Domingo and Tola are tender and poignant in their operatic and romantic duets; he even twirls her around the stage in a little waltz after harmonizing on “ I Could Have Danced All Night”. 

Placido Domingo press conference

Let the music begin

There is a chill in the air; the temperature drops, but luckily the predicted rain has spared the evening. However, it influences Domingo to forgo two planned intermissions; he wraps a scarf around his neck and continues singing. It is an impressive program; maestro is in good form and happy to be performing to such a revered audience.

Domingo and Virginia in a duet

Maestro takes the stage

Placido Domingo's concert begins

An aria from West Side Story

Virginia Tola hits a high note

Saturday Evening, July 17th

Richard Seguin, picks me up at the hotel, and we walk to Saint Amour Restaurant, one of his favorites; he has booked a table for 6:30, a bit early but it will us time to linger before Sting's show at 10 P.M.  Before we know it, it is past 10; the show has already started. We take a shortcut to the Plains of Abraham where a crowd of 80,000 are already grooving to Sting's performance. In addition to his on stage presence, two huge screens on either side of the stage project the performance. The torrential rains that flooded the city during the day have subsided, but the ground is soaked; my shoes sink into the mud as we make our way through the crowd. The pulse and rhythms of the audience are as electrifying as the sounds from Sting's  guitar; my spirits soar in spite of my wet feet. Neon colors move in waves on six screens behind the band; in sync with Sting's  music; they seem to emulate his fingers flying over the strings of his guitar. I am most impressed with Leurent Rouctier's creativity; the range of special visual effects he designed for each performance is as different as the music, stage presence and personality of each performer. I am so very fortunate to be part of this amazing evening. (

Sting

After the concert Richard takes me the revolving restaurant on the top of the Loews Hotel; the night is clear; the 360 degree views are breathtaking. When we get back to the Hilton, the lobby bar is packed with performers, fans and members of the press from all parts of the world; before I know it, it is 3 A.M.

Press are here from around the world

In position to film for TV

I may have missed tightrope walker Ramon Kelvink Jr. make his legendary crossing high above the streets of the Old City, on a steel wire that stretched from the Price Building to the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac, on July 11 (a feat that took 30 minutes), but I am honored to have been part of Quebec Summer Festival 2009, and the collective crowd of music lovers who came together to cheer and applaud. During my four day visit, I had the thrill of seeing Styx, Kiss, Domingo and Sting perform live with the added dimension of amazing lighting and video effects.

I don’t know of any other place on the planet where such an incredible roster of  the Who’s Who of the music world  come together in the short span of  eleven days . . .  and  where,  night after night,  you  can hear your favorite idols perform  around town  . . .  all for the incredible price of only $45 CAD.

Interesting facts about Ouebec City Summer Festival
1. The budget for the Ouebec City Summer Festival : 14 millions CAD
2. How many people attended the concerts during its two week run? We don’t have the number yet, but last year was 1, 7 millions
3. How many attended Styx, Sting, Kiss and Domingo shows:  STYX 70 000, Sting 120 000, Placido: 60 000, KISS: 90 000
4. How many technicians work on the shows? About 100 technicians are hired during the Festival.
5.The price of tickets for admission to all performances during the 11 day festival: $45CAD. There was a pre-sale in May where 60 000 access passes have been sold for 35$ CAD, in two days. The last 4 days of the Festival, it was possible for festival-goers to buy a day pass for the cost of 25$ CAD

For next year’s schedule and line up: www.infofestival.com

For Hotel & tourist info: www.quebecregion.com

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