For Gordon E. Smith, Interim Director of the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts at Queen’s University, planning a full season at one of Eastern Ontario’s most vibrant concert halls is a balancing act. As Director, Smith must put together a season that offers patrons a wide assortment of performance types, while taking into consideration the university’s commitment to “diversity, inclusion, and indigenization.”
“It’s something that is really at the forefront of our approach to programming at the Isabel… sort of decolonizing the performing arts experience by bringing in diverse artists… not just from different genres, but different ages, different places, different perspectives,” noted Smith. “This is really sort of a challenging mandate to work with, but it’s an incredibly important one. I would hope that our season next year responds to this and reflects the efforts that we are putting in.”
While the mandate is reflected across the entire 2023/24 season, it is the commitment to indigenization that is perhaps most evident though, thanks in part to the Isabel’s new Listenings series — a selection of concerts and other arts events dedicated to truth and reconciliation planned for September. “Listenings is a set of Indigenous programs… starting with an art exhibition in our Art and Media Lab at the Isabel,” said Smith. Faded Memories of Home, an art installation by Tom Wilson, explores “the systemic erasure of Indigenous culture in residential schools,” noted the season brochure.
According to Smith, Wilson’s art installation will allow patrons to experience a replica of a residential school classroom. “The exhibit has toured around a fair bit over the last year-and-a-half, and it’s going to be at the Isabel for nearly a month in September,” he said. Faded Memories of Home will run from September 11 to 28, 2023, with the exhibit open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Monday to Friday; admission is free.
On top of the art installation, the Listenings series also features two concerts by Indigenous musicians. On September 23, 2023, Leela and Jay Gilday, a brother and sister Dene roots duo, will take to the stage with Sechile Sedare, featuring songs of “nostalgia, hope, humour, and reflection.” Then, on September 27, 2023, Mali Obomswian, an award-winning bassist and composer from the Odnak First Nation will make her Isabel debut. To close out the series, Listenings will feature an Indigenous storytelling event for children on September 30, 2023.
As for where the inspiration behind the Listenings series came from, Smith said conversations began last season after the Isabel hosted some educational programming as part of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. “[The 2022 programming] sort of gave us the idea that for… 2023, we could make it a [full] month where we would really highlight the importance of truth and reconciliation, and particularly the educational aspects of it,” he said.
“The idea of listening is so important, it’s so fundamental to Indigenous ways of knowing. It’s not just about performance, it’s about the other end of the performance… actually listening, even if it’s listening to silence… At the Isabel, we find it very inspiring to think about these things,” added Smith.
On top of Listenings, the 2023-24 season features three other distinct programming blocks: the Virtuosi Soloist Series, the Ensemble Series, and the Artist Spotlight Concerts. Throughout the various series, the Isabel is set to play host to many world-renowned and award-winning performers, across a wide array of musical genres.
“We have a Virtuosi Soloist Series [featuring] four piano recitals: Janina Fialkowska, Eve Egoyan, [and] Emanuel Axe, [who’s] well known to Kingston audiences, is going to be performing with the Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling. That’s going to be a really great recital,” noted the interim director. The 2023/24 Ensemble Series has six performances, including a group that was originally supposed to open the 2022/23 season.
“Manchester Collective with Abel Sealaocoe [were] planned to open our 2022/23 season, but they were unable to get VISAs to travel, so that concert had to be postponed. [The new concert] is on for next April, we’re delighted that they’re able to come in and do that,” said Smith.
While the upcoming season showcases a number of artists making their debut at the Isabel, such as “tabla superstar” Zakir Hussain, and the Pavel Haas Quartet, Smith was also able to secure artists who have performed at the venue before, including alumni from the Isabel’s Bader and Overton Canadian Cello Competition. “We have Brian Cheng and his sister Silvie, they’re called Cheng² Duo, on cello and piano,” Smith noted. In 2020, Bryan Cheng won the Marion Dick Memorial Cello Prize at the competition, taking home $20,000, as well as a commitment for a future recital at the venue.
On top of the national and internally-renowned artists, Smith also worked to ensure the upcoming season included performers from the Kingston community, something he said is “incredibly important for us.”
“We really like to think of the Isabel as a home for local artists,” he explained. As such, on December 9, 2023, Kingston’s Miss Emily will entertain fans with a selection of holiday music. “She loves to perform here, she likes to play, she likes the hall. She likes the vibe if I can use that expression,” Smith remarked.
Next April, the Isabel will play host to a special RKY Camp summer album release concert. “The album, set to release in April 2024, features over a dozen summer-themed cover songs performed by over 40 local musicians,” according to the season brochure. While Smith said the exact details of the album release show are still being worked out, he expects some prominent local musicals to be included in the performance.
In total, the 2023/24 Isabel season features 30 performances and other events. Several different ticket options are available to interested patrons, including series subscriptions which are on sale now. Tickets to individual performances will go on sale on July 24, 2023. Additional information can be found on the venue’s website.