How Ottawa–Gatineau became Canada's classical guitar capital

Meet the people putting the National Capital Region on the guitar map.

Meet the people putting the National Capital Region on the guitar map

Founded in 2018, the Ottawa Guitar Trio comprises Nathan Bredeson, Alex Bougie and François Lacelle. (Ben Borg)

In the late 1970s, when then teenaged classical guitarist Patrick Roux was looking for a teacher to help him prepare his audition for the Conservatoire de musique de Gatineau, he couldn't find one.

"There was no one here," Roux recalled during a recent conversation with CBC Music. "There was Ed Honeywell who was teaching at Ottawa U, and maybe one or two other guys, but it was very limited on the Quebec side [of the Ottawa River]. So, I just bought some music and learned some stuff and, you know, prepared the audition on my own."

To say "and the rest is history" would be an understatement: In the 44 years since that auspicious audition, Roux has helped transform Ottawa–Gatineau into Canada's classical guitar capital, building the guitar studios at both the Conservatoire de Gatineau and the University of Ottawa, co-founding the Canadian Guitar Quartet and establishing Guitar Alla Grande, an annual classical guitar festival whose 15th edition gets underway on Feb. 13 in the National Capital Region.

When Roux graduated from Gatineau's Conservatoire in 1984, he went overseas for a year, dividing his time between Vienna and London and furthering his studies with David Russell in the latter city. There, he discovered a much busier classical guitar scene.

"There was one concert hall that is called the Wigmore Hall where there were maybe two or three classical guitar concerts a week. Great artists from all around the world. And this was just in that hall — there were a lot of busy places, churches and other little halls. I could go to a guitar concert almost every day.

"And it was unbelievable, because you were sitting in the hall and there was Julian Bream, sitting beside you, and John Williams, and I mean, it was like I was like in heaven."

Roux returned to Gatineau in 1985 to find that his former guitar teacher at the Conservatoire, Jean Vallières, had taken a position in Montreal.

"The job was free in Gatineau, so I applied and finally I was the one who was chosen. I was 22. And from that moment, my goal was to build a really big guitar community — to get everyone to work together to build something that would be a great region for guitar."

When I suggested to him the idea of establishing a professional guitar quartet, the first thing he said was, 'I have already written several concert pieces for guitar quartet — let's do it!'​​​​​- Philip Candelaria


In addition to his teaching position in Gatineau, Roux joined the faculty at the University of Ottawa in 1993. "From that moment, I was established in Gatineau, and I was established in Ottawa. So, I could make the link between the two, and I could bring the students together," he explained.

Roux continued playing in a variety of ensembles and began composing a lot of music, as well. But it was an encounter with guitarist Philip Candelaria in the mid-'90s that marked a turning point.

"Patrick came to a solo concert of mine back in the mid-1990s for one of the Ottawa summer music festivals," recalled Candelaria in an email to CBC Music. "This led to an invitation from him for me to give a masterclass at the Conservatoire in Gatineau, where the first student performer on the stage was Louis Trépanier! In turn, I was very impressed with Patrick's teaching as well as his compositions. When I suggested to him the idea of establishing a professional guitar quartet, the first thing he said was, 'I have already written several concert pieces for guitar quartet — let's do it!'"

With Roux, Candelaria and Trépanier, plus the addition of Denis Donegani, the Canadian Guitar Quartet (CGQ) was born.

'My students always say to me, 'Thanks for transmitting this passion you have for the music and the guitar.' That's what I try to give to them.' — Patrick Roux (Marie Vallières)

"The school of music at the University of Ottawa was so supportive that they hired all four Canadian Guitar Quartet members to teach and build the guitar program as a quartet in residence there," Candelaria added. "In all modesty, I do believe that the CGQ's success with tours in Mexico, South America and Europe, combined with our recordings, was part of the reason for the richness and depth of the Ottawa–Gatineau classical guitar scene. We all remember the early years with great fondness, despite all the travel and hard work."

According to Roux, the presence of the CGQ at Ottawa U was like a student magnet. "At that time we were touring a lot. That was attracting students. At some point at Ottawa U, we had, like, 30 auditions — that's amazing for guitar."

Twenty years later, the CGQ is still going strong, with the next generation filling its ranks. "Patrick once said to me, 'The CGQ was really the crown jewel of my concert career,' and I couldn't agree more,' said Candelaria. "It is also with great pride that I see the CGQ continue, becoming even more successful with its new young members as first Denis, then Patrick and finally myself retired. When the CGQ started, Louis was the youngest member of the ensemble. Now he's the oldest!"

In 1996, Roux also began teaching at the Domaine Forget summer music academy in Quebec's Charlevoix region, which is where, in 2010, he met a future student, Adam Cicchillitti.

"I remember being struck by how much his students spoke highly of him as a pedagogue, performer and composer," Cicchillitti told CBC Music. "I had no idea back then how much he would change my life; I later moved to Ottawa to pursue studies with him, where I met my wife and built my career."

A protégé of Roux and a specialist in child pedagogy, Cicchillitti is doing his part to pay it forward by running the guitar program (which he founded) at Ottawa Suzuki Strings.

"The classical guitar is ridiculously intricate, but children don't know that," he says, articulating his approach. "We take songs we know and adapt them to our instrument. We use words and syllables to teach rhythm and melody. We learn in an environment of positivity and nurturing. Every child can learn a musical instrument without exception if they have supportive parents, listen to music and perform regularly."

Once those children grow up, the Ottawa Guitar Society is there to foster interest in classical guitar throughout the year with a young artist series (curated by Cicchillitti), masterclasses and a composition competition.

One of the more recent arrivals on Ottawa-Gatineau's classical guitar scene is the Ottawa Guitar Trio (OGT). Comprising three alumni from Ottawa U's guitar program — Nathan Bredeson, Alex Bougie and François Lacelle — the OGT has quickly built a following with its performances of film music and video-game soundtracks in addition to arrangements of wide-ranging repertoire and classics of guitar ensemble literature.

The OGT will perform a homecoming concert at Guitar Alla Grande, the annual classical guitar festival founded by Roux in 2006 that runs from Feb. 13 to 16 this year.

In addition to international headliners Judicaël Perroy and Misael Barraza-Diaz, this year's edition of Guitar Alla Grande features masterclasses and lectures as well as performances by junior and senior guitar orchestras. Activities take place at both Ottawa U and the Conservatoire in Gatineau. For detailed information, head over here.

"We like to highlight the students, too," says Roux. "So, the opening and closing concerts are just the students, from all the institutions and from all levels, so everybody gets to play and have fun and be part of the experience."

Through the students graduating from the Conservatoire de Gatineau and Ottawa U — rising guitar stars such as Christ Habib and Félix Dallaire (see below) — Roux sees a bright future. "They have not only the talent and the musical and technical skills, but they also have personality and they have the passion, you know, the most important thing," he said. "That's what I always had through the years — this passion. And the students always say to me, 'Thanks for transmitting this passion you have for the music and the guitar.' So that's what I try to give to them.

"I'm just there to guide them. And then they start to fly with their own wings. I tried to push it farther than my teacher did, and now you have to try to push it further than I did, you know? That's what's great."