A chance trip to Lowville leads to an astonishing concert–and unexpected reunion

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Sometimes, life hands you a gift. Call it what you will: luck, fluke, chance or coincidence. But if you ask my family, they’ll call an accidentally-viewed Facebook post a gift times 3. And it’s all because of Rachel Mercer.

Photo: LowvilleFestival.com

Photo: LowvilleFestival.com

Rachel spoke with SesayArts in May about her then upcoming numerous summer concert appearances in Southern Ontario. (Read it here.) There were so many that she mentioned only the cities where she’d be performing, rather the name of each festival. As it happens, one such festival was last weekend . . .and I found out only because my finger accidentally hit the Facebook icon on my phone when I turned it on. Rachel posted that she’d be performing at the inaugural Lowville Festival that night with Stuart Laughton and Rebecca Caine. Curious whether she might possibly mean that Rebecca Caine, I clicked on the link to the Lowville Festival website.

That fateful click turn our entire Sunday around. Where we’d deliberately planned the day to marshal our children to de-clutter our bursting basement, and drive our donation to Goodwill (long overdue), now all we could think about was how to get ourselves to Lowville in time for the final concert of the inaugural 4-day celebration of the arts.

Why the urgency? Well, Lowville is less than an hour away from Toronto, a gentle hamlet in a valley near Bronte Creek in the Niagara Escarpment. Here, we might experience a concert of classical and contemporary music performed by virtuosos like Rachel and other eminent artists from Ontario in a much more picturesque and intimate atmosphere than the larger, impersonal city venues which typically divide artist from audience. This seemed too great an opportunity to miss.

And so, excited by the spontaneity of this impromptu excursion, we hit the highway.

Cellist Rachel Mercer opened the show, and to hear her live is simply sublime. Playing with closed eyes, she embodied the complex prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 as much as performed it, fully immersed in her rendition of each beautiful note. We look forward to seeing her again when she appears with Art of Time Ensemble in the fall and when she begins her tenure as Associate Cello with the National Arts Centre Orchestra in January. And my children won’t soon forget hearing her from mere feet away and clapping along with her lively rendition of the Aaron Minsky-composed “Broadway”. . . and  then chatting and taking a post-show picture with her. This was Gift #1.

Chatting with Cellist Rachel Mercer (photo: Scott Sneddon)

Chatting with Cellist Rachel Mercer
(photo: Scott Sneddon)

Hats off to the festival organizers for assembling such a diverse and talented group of Ontario musicians. The concert also boasted renowned trumpet soloist Stuart Laughton, who played a nature-inspired piece composed by R. Murray Schafer that magically conjured the outdoors. Burlington-based pianist Renée Barabash played 2 compositions by Ravel and Schuman (the latter as a gorgeous duet with her flautist husband). The program then changed to contemporary vocal selections by Robert Missen and Lorretta Bailey, accompanied by Michael Mulrooney, followed by a rivetting performance by the internationally revered opera and musical-theatre performer Rebecca Caine (yes, that one!). Some might say that having the original Cosette from the inaugural cast of Les Misérables (Caine) and the first Eponine from the Canadian cast (Bailey) together on one stage would in itself be the pièce de résistance. Certainly, we never imagined this prospect.

And the Lowville Festival provided an up-close-and-personal opportunity to hear all of these wonderful artists enliven their sets with anecdotes, making them all the more significant and touching. My family will never again hear “Think of Me” from The Phantom of the Opera without recalling Caine recount her close friendship with co-star Byron Nease, who played Raoul to her Christine. . . and how an encounter with a psychic brought her solace after his death. Lorretta Bailey admitted taking a night off from Les Misérables just to see Caine perform, and described the tea date that followed. Both leading ladies sang “My Favourite Things” from The Sound of Music, complete with correlated body movements that clearly they’d choreographed together. Stuart Laughton, as accomplished a guitarist as he is a trumpeter, led the audience in a stirring chorus of “Edelweiss” as the finale.

What made the Lowville Festival unique and memorable were these personal glimpses into the artists, and a rare opportunity to interact with them casually: no assigned seats, no radio competition, no VIP passes. When we drove into the parking lot and saw a gentleman playing the alpine horn on a hill, we knew the night would be special. In short, the Lowville Festival is low key and high quality. This was Gift #2.

So what’s Gift #3? A respite from basement cleaning? Almost . . . but the most pressing urgency for me to go to the festival was personal: to hear my friend Lorretta Bailey sing. Over the years I’ve known her, it’s become increasingly clear that Lorretta is not just a talented performer but a bit of a visionary. That she, along with Robert Missen and Barbara Anderson-Huget, co-organized this event to celebrate “the artist in us all” comes as no surprise. She’s innately modest, and also somewhat elusive. She can’t be found promoting herself in the papers or posting on social media. For that reason, I’ve tended to find out about her performances only after the fact. So my children had never heard her–only heard of her.

So when I clicked on the website link in Rachel’s post, and saw that Lorretta would be performing, I really wanted us to go. In speaking with her after the concert, I learned that much has happened since last I saw her. She has raised 3 children, and her life now is a balance of family, artistic projects and teaching musical theatre. I also saw that time has not diminished her warm personality or her beautiful voice. My children were thrilled and awed to meet her. And this was Gift #3.

Catching up with artist and festival co-organizer Lorretta Bailey (photo: Scott Sneddon)

Catching up with artist and festival co-organizer Lorretta Bailey (photo: Scott Sneddon)

In hindsight, Rachel’s post seems a fateful stroke of luck: something I was meant to stumble across. So thank you, Rachel, for your music–and for much more. Just one niggling regret: my daughter, who has looked up to Rebecca Caine since she was 12 (and has played and sung along with her Phantom recording endlessly), didn’t get a chance to meet her.

But then, there’s always next year.

News You Can Use

What: Lowville Festival: A celebration of the arts, for the artist in everyone

Who: Audiences of all ages

Fyi: LowvilleFestival.com

© 2015 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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