He’s so suited to the job, it’s surprising it’s taken this long for the venerable Festival de Lanaudière in Joliette to select musician-entertainer-cultural entrepreneur Gregory Charles as its artistic director.
Charles, who just turned 50, has sparkled with the stuff of stardom from childhood, having soaked up strong and deep musical and ethical influences from both parents, and as a child, displaying talent bordering on virtuosity.
“I remember the first edition of Lanaudière,” he recalled. “I went to musical summer camps in Lanaudière and I knew (festival founder) Père Fernand Lindsay. I performed in it as part of a choral group as a child, and as a pianist played Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnaval des animaux.”
As soloist and conductor, Charles has performed everything from jazz and pop to classical. He’s headlined the Just for Laughs Festival, and operates classical radio stations in Quebec City.
The Lanaudière menu until August 5 in Joliette, 77 kilometres northeast of Montreal, is broad, featuring new and established talent, classic works, and challenging contemporary pieces.
Music was always close to home, first in the village of Saint-Germain de Grantham near Drummondville where he lived with mom, accountant Pierrette Saint-Martin and dad, Trinidad-born Lennox Charles, who worked for many years at the Jewish General Hospital.
His mom played the church organ, and his grandfather played violin, piano, bass, trumpet, and accordion. His father’s family still performs in the steel band called the Desperados.
The family moved to Montreal and Gregory began a decade of choral training and performing with the famed boys’ choir, Les Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal, linked to the Oratoire Saint-Joseph, then high school at Collège Notre-Dame and CEGEP at Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf. He completed Université de Montréal law school, wrote the Bar exams, but never registered as a lawyer.
Being from a mixed race family, Charles said he was taunted at school. “I don’t remember being treated very differently than the odd tall guy, fat guy, thick glasses guy. It was about being different.
“I mostly became friends with everyone. I experienced more racism as an adult, a little bit here, but a lot in the States, a lot in France. When I came home from school on my first day and people said nigger ‘black, nigger black,’ and didn’t want me beside them in the locker room, my mom sent me to school the next day wearing a French beret, and when I came back from school I said I had been teased because I was wearing the beret.
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“Her point: It doesn’t matter what you do or who you are — if you’re different, people are going to try to tease you so are you going to let them win or are you going to be the boss of you? The teasing didn’t last long because I was the boss of me.”
As the citation says, when in 2016 he was named an Officer of the Order of Canada, Charles has deployed “infectious energy, creativity and dedication to ensuring that the performing arts and culture thrive in Canada and abroad.”
“I set out when I was a kid to have three parts to my life — a family life, community engagement, and professional endeavors,” Charles says. “I feel like my plan is actually what happened.” It helps that he only sleeps three hours a night. That’s all he needs, he says.
“My wife (Nicole Collet, a Franco-Manitoban from Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes), and daughter (Julia, 6) are fantastic. I took care of my parents during the past 15 years through their illnesses. It was a privilege to do to that for parents who did everything they could to help me grow and become who I became.
Lanaudière labels itself as “the premier classical music event in Canada” attracting 55,000 visitors to the main outdoor amphitheater and the region’s beautiful churches. His theme this year: “In Love as in War.”
The festival opens July 7 with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra conducted by Finland’s Susanna Mälkki, playing Berlioz’s romantic
Symphony Fantastique and cellist Alban Gerhardt playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto.
A more contemporary July 8th concert features trombonist Alain Trudel conducting with soprano Marie-Josée Lord and violinist Alexandre Da Costa with an orchestral treatment of Bernstein’s songs.
July 14, Kent Nagano conducts St. Luke Passion by Kryzysztof Penderecki, with four soloists and choral conductor Andrew Megill.
July 15 at 2 pm Montreal’s Jireh Gospel Choir is conducted by Carol Bernard with soloist Kim Richardson.
July 21 Charles will be at the piano with violinist Da Costa, four singers and the Lanaudière Festival Orchestra and a huge chorus with Symphonic Céline – the most memorable songs of Céline Dion.
July 22 at 2 pm the Orchestre National de Jazz de Montréal conducted by trumpeter Ron Di Lauro, with singer Kim Richardson, performs World War II music.
July 29 at 2 pm is a tribute to the cello, featuring 12 instrumentalists. That evening, the concert is Rapture, all a capella, with the 18-member Voces Boréales choir performing Path of Miracles, by British composer Joby Talbot, at the Église de L’Assomption.
August 4 at night, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads the Orchestre Métropolitain with famed pianist Marc-André Hamelin in a program of Bernstein. They return Aug. 5 at 2 pm to play Shostakovich — Piano Concerto No. 2, and his epic Seventh Symphony.
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