Culture shock

A scene in the musical drama Evangéline, staged at Church Point, NS

Music, art, theatre, antiques: We’ve got it all. Surprised?

It’s our little secret, really. The provinces of Atlantic Canada have long worn the label of being “have not” provinces. But what we know (and they don’t) is that when it comes to culture, we here on the East Coast are incredibly rich.

From the smallest hamlet to the largest city of these four provinces, there is a wealth of theatre, music, and dance close at hand. And along the way, there are treasure troves of antiques and art galleries to be explored, along with teahouses and restaurants aplenty to nourish us for the adventure.

Opera in Lunenburg? It’s true. While the home of our beloved Bluenose has long included the lovely old building known as the Opera House, for years it had not actually seen any real opera. The company, Maritime Concert Opera (MCO), has turned that around.

This summer the MCO, founded by Lunenburg resident and renowned mezzo-soprano Nina Scott-Stoddard, presents Barber of Seville in concert format at venues such as the Pearl Theatre in Lunenburg and the Astor Theatre in Liverpool. The arrival of the MCO dovetails nicely with the rising tide of exceptional musical offerings along Nova Scotia’s South Shore.

The Mahone Bay Summer Concert Series, also known as Music at the Three Churches, enriches Friday nights in the area with performances by some of Canada’s brightest classical stars. This summer’s concert schedule includes such perennial favourites as the Arthur LeBlanc Quartet and Duo Concertante. Concert times allow for an early dinner, so check out the options along Mahone Bay’s waterfront, where Pulitzer-prize winner Frank McCourt has been known to dine.

If you crave some antique hunting on the South Shore, head for Petite Rivière and Green Bay. A beautiful drive and out-of-the-way dealers with exceptional pieces await. And Lunenburg County has a wealth of wonderful art galleries to visit. Stop at the Maritime Painted Saltbox on Main Street, Mahone Bay for heritage reproduction furniture, folk and fine art. Peer Gallery on Lincoln Street in Lunenburg is the place for contemporary art from photography to wood-turning. Even if you know your way around the Nova Scotia art scene, tuck a Studio Rally Map in your glove compartment. It’ll point the way to some off-the-beaten-path finds in every community in the province

We can thank the passionate musical forces behind organizations like Musique Royale and the St. Cecilia Concert Society for putting marvellous music all over the Nova Scotian map. Musique Royale’s summer concerts, highlighting the province’s early music heritage with French, British, German and Dutch influence, are everywhere—including Antigonish, Arichat, Amherst, and Annapolis Royal (and that’s just the As!). And the folks at St. Cecilia bring national and international artists to venues in and around Halifax.

The big name in classical music on Prince Edward Island is the Indian River Festival in Kensington. Delivering the talents of Canadian performers like Wendy Nielsen with the Gothic beauty and outstanding acoustics of St. Mary’s Church—well, it’s a good thing. The concerts of the festival are certainly the main event, but the summer weekends at Indian River also include workshops and pre-concert talks. One piece of advice—get your tickets early! If you go, don’t forget the Farmer’s Market at the Kensington Train Station every Saturday morning in the summer. You can pick up the makings for a perfect picnic before the performance, then cruise to Stanley Bridge for a stop at Linden Cove Inn & Antiques to size up their hand-sewn quilts. After all, you’ll need a quilt for that picnic, right?

Northern New Brunswick is home to the award-winning Baie des Chaleurs International Chamber Music Festival in early July (recognized in 2004 as the “Event of the Year” by the Association acadienne des artistes professionnel.le.s du Nouveau-Brunswick!). This innovative bunch combined visual and performing arts in a captivating collaboration with the Atlantic Visual Arts Festival, with painters working on stage during concerts and drawing their inspiration from the music. Past performers have come from both New Brunswick (the inimitable Measha Brüggergosman, for one) and from as far away as France. The spectacular beauty of the Bay of Chaleur and the artistry on stage should further inspire you to make the drive this summer. George Frachon, who hails from Savoy, France, owns and operates La Fine Grobe Sur Mer, an inn, restaurant and art gallery in the village of Nigadoo. His crusty baguettes baked fresh in his outdoor oven, along with the inventory of his enviable wine cellar, provide an even greater incentive to head north this summer.

There’s no need for Newfoundlanders to travel to Carnegie Hall to hear some of the world’s most celebrated musicians. The Tuckamore Chamber Music Festival in August brings them to St. John’s for two weeks. The première concerts of the festival are held in the evenings, of course, but there is a unique opportunity to see the artists in a different light during the day. You can take in the lunchtime series at St. Andrew’s Church. Or, for something completely different, drop by to see and hear world-class musicians mentoring talented young artists in the Master Classes. This summer featured performers Shanghai Quartet and pianist Tanya Bannister take on the teaching task.

As Bill S. put it, “The play’s the thing” and indeed it seems to be absolutely the hottest thing throughout our region. Such iconic theatres of Atlantic Canada as the Neptune Theatre in Halifax and Confederation Centre in Charlottetown have justly earned their reputations as outstanding venues offering first-rate productions. But beyond the marquees of the major houses (and if you’ve had enough of Anne to last a lifetime), there are the more intimate gems of the theatre world—bijou theatres, smaller professional production companies, even community theatres—that are worthy of our attention.

And indeed, the established theatre troupes of Atlantic Canada are fervent in their commitment to touring the smaller towns turning any town stage into a main stage. In fact, Canadian superstars Cathy Jones and Mary Walsh once performed in community halls throughout Newfoundland as part of the Newfoundland Travelling Theatre Company bringing both indigenous works and the likes of Bertolt Brecht and Neil Simon to various areas across the province. These days, professional companies like Rising Tide in Trinity and festivals like the thriving Stephenville Theatre Festival are ensuring that there is a diverse menu of theatre offerings available all summer.

Trinity’s reputation as a centre for the arts just keeps growing. Besides being the location for CBC’s Random Passage and the Hollywood version of Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, it is also home to the Artisan Inn, a small, inspirational resort and studio space for those passionate about arts and culture. The Artisan also hosts art exhibits, workshops in everything from photography to knot tying, and performances from poetry readings to traditional music. You’ll need to eat, so go next door to the Twine Loft. Dinner can begin with a terrine of smoked salmon and end with the likes of frozen lemon mousse with wild berry coulis. Primed, perhaps, with a 1999 Masi from the cellar, you can ask the staff for stories about the stars like Kevin Spacey and Dame Judi Dench who have known and loved Trinity as their temporary home.

Across the Gulf of St. Lawrence, in Glace Bay, Cape Breton, the exquisite Savoy Theatre has earned a 2005 ECMA nomination as “The Venue of the Year.” This jewel box of a theatre anchors the cultural life of the area. This year alone offers a wide spectrum of Canadian culture from the daring play The Shape of a Girl to the Celtic genius of The Cottars. Over in Inverness County, the stage of the Strathspey Place in Mabou, named in memory of John Morris Rankin, sees its fair share of Celtic performers and musicians from a variety of other genres.

Back to the mainland, the summer months bring back the beloved Shakespeare by the Sea at Halifax’s Point Pleasant Park. This professional company has expanded the range of their brilliance to include “Bard-O-Grams.” Send a sonnet to that special someone and a professional Shakespearian actor delivers it.

Further afield, the Ship’s Company in Parrsboro, respected as much for the quality of their productions as for the innovation of their performance space aboard the Kipawo Showboat, offer a second season in their renovated and expanded space. Unless you live in Cumberland County, you’ll probably need a place to stay. The gracious Maple Inn is within walking distance of the theatre and boasts a veranda, perfect for an after-theatre drink.

On the other side of the Northumberland Strait, in a little corner of PEI called Victoria-by-the-Sea (population less than 200), is the remarkable Victoria Playhouse. Not to be outdone by her city cousins in Charlottetown and Summerside, the Victoria Playhouse has been putting on an average of 85 performances a year for more than 20 years. Previous seasons have seen everything from British thrillers to regional comedies on the playbill. Victoria-by-the-Sea also features antique shops, a rare book store and a handmade chocolate factory.

And you’ve got to love the Confederation Bridge, which gets you across the Strait. This engineering marvel makes it possible to catch a show in Victoria and be in Fredericton to see a street performance by NotaBle Acts Theatre Company the next day. Time it right and you can have Sunday brunch at Little Louis’ Oyster Bar in Moncton along the way. Your 12-oyster platter (think Rockefeller, Casino, and Benedict) is accompanied by live music featuring some of the region’s pre-eminent jazz musicians.

It makes you wonder where in the world that “have-not” handle came from, anyway. To anybody who’s dived into our Atlantic culture, it looks like we’ve got it all…in spades.