On January 19–20, the Hart House Theatre held its first-ever U of T Festival of Music. The theatre, which has been in operation since 1919, has always been a place for aspiring young performers to showcase their craft. The student-run event stuck to this precedent, bringing together a diverse set of performances from an equally diverse student body. 

Hart House Festivals have been a staple of the institution for a while, namely in disciplines such as drama and dance, allowing students to showcase their talents on stage. Lindsey Middleton, a marketing assistant at Hart House Theatre, wrote in an email to The Varsity that the festival organizers wanted to make sure music wasn’t excluded: “Adding music as part of the Performing Arts Student Festival Season is long overdue in light of those traditions!”

The planning for the festival took months of hard work from a team of both students and Hart House staff. Submissions opened in the fall for students, staff, and alumni looking to perform at the showcase. “It was not an audition; if you wanted to perform, a slot would be given to you, which is different from other performance opportunities on campus,” Middleton wrote. The festival attracted over 40 submissions, and the team created a two-night event to allow for the entire diverse set of acts to be presented.

The unique audition style was a deliberate choice; the festival aimed to be as inclusive as possible, as well as being, according to Middleton, “an opportunity for any level of performer to take to the Hart House Theatre stage.” It also worked to introduce more students to the dynamic theatre community outside of formal programming, allowing performers to collaborate, network, and promote their own work.

The nights in question were quiet and cold, a far cry from the vibrant performances going on inside the Hart House Theatre. A buoyant opening jazz ensemble, melancholic guitar ballads, and hard rock bands — among others — created a musical variety that was surprising and refreshing. 

The performers themselves also came from a wide variety of backgrounds and musical experiences. From singers taking the stage for the first time to groups that had released music and been featured on radio stations, the festival’s mantra of musical inclusivity was truly on display. Students from places like Turkey, Dubai, and Hong Kong showcased the wide range of international talent that U of T’s musical scene has to offer. 

The event involved a large amount of original, unreleased music from up-and-coming student performers looking to showcase their own songs. Cards with song lyrics and performers’ social media information were handed out at the door, highlighting the festival’s commitment to helping young artists get their start. Not only was this event an amazing opportunity for promotion, but the chance to perform on one of Toronto’s oldest stages was invaluable.

The coloured lights, vintage fixtures in the historic theatre, and whispering from the excited crowd contributed to an ambiance of art and discovery; an intimate, hazy setting of new beginnings, both for the festival and for many of the performers themselves. 

The festival was a success, according to both Middleton and the enthusiastic audience. “The Theatre plans to program it again in our student festival season, alongside the Drama Festival and Festival of Music next year and for subsequent years to come,” wrote Middleton. As the final notes of a soul song resonated through the walls of the theatre, it was clear that the festival had not only achieved its goal of providing a talent-filled look into what the theatre had to offer but had set a precedent for future cultural endeavours.

The inaugural Hart House Musical Festival provided a glimpse into the emerging landscape of artistic expression within the university. Unique for its lack of a strict selection process, the festival gave new artists a chance to promote their creations and showcase their talents.