Build Your Own Festival: Centric, Canada’s newest classical music festival

Jun 20, 2014

Centric founder and artistic director Jesse Plessis.

Music festivals are the great summer experience. It could be a folk festival in your local community, a road-trip to Southern California, or a subscription for multiple nights at a jazz festival. For many of us, they can create some of the most memorable moments of our musical experiences. For one individual however, experiencing the festival atmosphere as a listener was no longer enough. For Jesse Plessis, a 26 year old pianist and composer living in Lethbridge, Alberta, the idea of the music festival has taken the form of founding one of his very own. You may be asking yourself at this moment, “Lethbridge, where?” And you would not be blamed for your perplexed feelings. Although not known to many as a national hub for the arts, the mid-sized city nestled in Southern Alberta has a strikingly vibrant arts community, one that Plessis has tapped for the most onerous of tasks: the establishment of a successful classical music festival.

The process began simply enough, as Plessis explains that “The Centric Festival didn’t actually start out as a festival.” It actually began as a proposition to bring Winnipeg’s Bison Duo to Lethbridge for a concert. Plessis continues, “They said that I should play a few pieces in their concert. Once we began discussing repertoire we had far too much music to play.” This eventually evolved into discussions of a further night of concerts, and since that wasn’t enough, finally, a full-fledged three day festival. The spontaneity and boldness reflected in Plessis’ approach to the founding of Centric can also be found in his choice of programming. Each of the three nights offers variety and originality in its musical choices. Most notable is the abundance of new works, world-premieres, and compositions by the performers themselves, betraying Plessis’ own predisposition to all that is new. “Ligeti, Boulez, and Stockhausen were regulars on my iPod at 16 years old,” he remarks, and as a composer himself he’s no stranger to the world of new music. Some of his compositions will even be making their way into the programs, along with the compositions of fellow festival performer and member of the Bison Duo, Christopher Byman. To get a taste of what’s in store for listeners attending Centric, take a listen to Plessis’ quartet A Boy and his Universe and Byman’s quartet The Field.


Not to be typecast as only a purveyor of new music though, Plessis is quick not to forget the masters of the past. “Of course, good music is good music, no matter the time or person it comes from,” he comments further, and rightly so. His openness to all types of music has given the program a unique scope that adds things like the full set of Schubert’s Op. 90 Impromptus, performed by University of Lethbridge professor Brian Black, to the piano four hands version of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which will be performed by Plessis and Mexican pianist Luis Ramirez.

Jesse Plessis and Luis Ramirez performing Igor Stravinky’s The Rite of Spring at Brandon University.

But why Lethbridge? Well, for starters, Plessis attended the University of Lethbridge where he obtained his Bachelor of Music in both piano performance and composition. After completing his Masters of Music at Brandon University he returned to Lethbridge and immersed himself in the musical life there, between trips to places like Iceland and Italy for other adventures in music. To many of us across Canada, Lethbridge may not be the place one would imagine to set down your roots as a musician and start a festival. In fact, some of us may not even know its exact location. For those of you who haven’t Googled it yet, it’s located about two and a half hours south of Calgary, built around the coulees surrounding the Oldman River in Southern Alberta. A city of just over 80,000 people, it has a vibrant cultural community supported by two post-secondary institutions, the University of Lethbridge and Lethbridge College. With a large student population most of the year, the city boasts a sizeable demographic of young adults and a strong fine arts program courtesy of the university. For Plessis, it has been the perfect place to start a festival, commenting that “Lethbridge is home to a wonderful and collaborative classical music scene.” He continues that “The city is home to a thriving and creative rock scene—you can go to a show here nearly every night of the week.” When mentioning the existing jazz and classical festivals, he comes to the importance of the city in inspiring the festival, adding “We decided to have this festival in Lethbridge because it is my home and I love this city and its people.”

Centric Festival logo designed by Lethbridge artist Sarah Hilliard.

For his part, Plessis has one primary aspiration in mind for the Centric Festival. “My highest goal for this festival” he explains, “is that somebody—just one person would be enough—will come to one of our concerts, hear something that they have never heard before, fall madly in love with and run home to look it up on the internet and listen to it many times and take profound joy from it.” A lofty goal indeed, but something that should be an integral part of any individual’s list of priorities when undertaking such a project.

Although in its infancy, the Centric Festival looks as if it has the potential to exist for years to come. With a foundation of great programming combined with the enthusiasm and vision of Plessis, Centric is something worth making Lethbridge part of your next summer festival circuit.

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Click here for ticket information.

You can read my extended interview with Jesse here.

-Nathaniel Schmidt

Contact me for any comments or suggestions or on Twitter @N88TE

About the Author

Brandon Wallis

Brandon is the Director of Marketing, Communications and Visitor Experience and for the National Music Centre and Editor-in-Chief of Amplify.

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