MONTREAL — Flamenco guitars and mariachi music aren’t the first things that occur to people when they think of Montreal in February.
But keep your ear cocked to the Montreal High Lights Festival, which begins its 11th edition on Feb. 18, and you could be surprised.
Conceived as a way to draw tourists to the city in the frigid months the way Quebec City does with its Carnival and Ottawa does with Winterlude, the High Lights Festival comes from the monolith that organizes Montreal’s International Jazz Festival and several other events.
Where many festivals boast about offering something for everyone, the High Lights organizers can be comfortable making the claim, presenting music, theatre, dance, art, circus and fine cuisine.
“That was the main point about the Montreal High Lights Festival,” says Laurent Saulnier, the event’s programming vice-president. “It’s not the jazz fest, it’s not Francofolies, it’s not dedicated to one kind of music or one genre of music. It’s really wide open.”
Saulnier says one of the difficulties in programming an event like High Lights is that not many artists tour in northeastern North America in February.
But that also gives the festival a little exclusivity in that it gives people a unique chance to see a lot of the acts, who will come to Montreal, play and go home.
“That’s a part of it that is really, really, really special,” he said.
The 11th edition is the biggest so far, Saulnier says. It comprises two sections — the performing arts series and the wine and dine experience.
Each year a particular country, city and region are showcased, and this year it’s Portugal, New Orleans and Quebec’s Eastern Townships.
In the fine dining section, chefs from other countries come and work with Quebec cooks to create culinary masterpieces.
It’s an experience that tickles the event’s spokesman, Jean-Francois Demers, who has 30 years in the food and drink industry.
“You know how a chef is in his own kitchen,” he says. “It’s like a lion in a cage. Nobody usually ever puts a toe in a kitchen of a restaurant. Then you’re going to have two lions in a cage, which will be outstanding!”
Don’t expect to hear the clang of clashing cutlery, though. Demers says the chefs are eager to collaborate.
“They are excited. They just can’t wait to come to Montreal. All the chefs are talking together, trying to find the good produce, the good spices, a good this and a good that. . . .”
Organizers have priced festival events in the reasonable range for the most part. Concerts begin around $17. In the food section, the lowest price is $12.95 for a three-course lunch offered by nine participating restaurants.
Demers said the priciest events are likely the dinners by honorary president Fausto Airoldi, featuring some of Portugal’s best wines along with the fine food.
There will be free admission to the Crossroads of Flavour, where downtown Complexe Desjardins will be transformed into a huge market, and the Festival of Quebec Cheeses.
A culinary competition will include four finalist chefs concocting original recipes using local cheeses. Diners will decide which chef wins the $5,000 prize.
“It will be a kind of blind taste test,” Demers said. “People will not know which recipe is from which chef.”
A number of acts such as singers Martine St-Clair, Elisapie Isaac and Andrea Lindsay will be premiering new work, as will internationally acclaimed cellist Jorane.
Montreal’s Les 7 doigts de la main circus troupe will also unveil its new show, and the festival will open with Quebecer Dominic Champagne’s multimedia “Paradise Lost,” about the last man on Earth.
Saulnier said the Portugal focus will introduce a number of acts from that country to Canadians, adding that organizers are excited to present Misia, billed as the queen of contemporary fado.
He also said he is anxious to see the double bill starring Virginia Rodrigues and the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club. Another can’t- miss outing, he adds, is a performance by the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Montreal native Yannick Nezet-Sequin.
“The orchestra is not touring a lot,” Saulnier pointed out.
And for those interested in taking in some visual art from a Montreal icon, the festival will host an exhibition of sketches by singer-songwriter-poet Leonard Cohen. Saulnier said Cohen’s son Adam will be on hand for the show, although it’s doubtful his famous father will attend.