Great Lakes Chamber Music Fest has interesting twists

Patrick Dunn
Speical to The Detroit News

As the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival marks its 23rd season, festival president Maury Okun says the event seeks to “deepen” audiences’ connection to chamber music instead of merely restaging classical works.

“Thirty years ago you used to see four guys in tuxedos and shiny shoes sitting on the stage,” Okun says.

“They just play the pieces, you know when to applaud and you go home. There’s nothing wrong with that experience, and sometimes we do that, but much more often we’re trying to draw people into what’s really happening.”

This year’s festival, which will present more than 15 performances through June 26 at various metro-area venues, features several events that seek to recontextualize chamber music in inventive ways. A concert entitled “Audio/Visual,” scheduled Friday at the Wasserman Projects, will feature four very different takes on Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Six Studies in English Folk Song.” Folk singer Carrie Shepard, Marcus Elliot’s jazz quartet, electronic musician DJ SuperDre and the classical duo of cellist Paul Watkins and pianist Becky Billock will each perform interpretations of the piece.

“Music and beauty play in a lot of different ways,” Okun says. “I happen to love chamber music ... I’m interested to see how it plays out through their eyes.”

The event also will feature an innovative approach to presenting the up-and-coming performers sponsored by the festival’s Shouse Institute program. Each year the Shouse Institute welcomes up to four emerging chamber music ensembles, their members generally no older than 30, to perform with and learn from senior festival performers.

Violinist Philip Setzer, best known for playing with the prestigious Emerson String Quartet, will mark his first full season as Shouse Institute director with a one-of-a-kind program entitled “Musical Chairs.” In Friday’sperformance at Kirk in the Hills, Setzer will construct new groups composed of himself and varying members of this year’s four Shouse ensembles, who will then perform.

Attendees at the “Musical Chairs” event will have the opportunity to refer to printed scores as Setzer walks the audience and the Shouse ensemble members through movements from four different classical pieces. Setzer, who has led similar events before in other settings, says the mix-and-match approach “feels almost like a party.”

“It’s really fun,” Setzer says. “It’s kind of like a cross between an intensive learning experience ... and the fun of a chamber music reading. But we are working. We’re working through it quickly. I throw a lot of information at them and there are a lot of balls being juggled in the air.”

The festival also features more conventional performances, many of them aimed at celebrating the world of British classical music. Watkins, the festival’s artistic director and a native Welshman, chose to feature his homeland this year after spotlighting American works in 2015, his first year as artistic director. Watkins says he’s particularly proud to present the acclaimed Nash Ensemble of London on Saturday at the Seligman Performing Arts Center, performing works by Edward Elgar, Maxwell Davies and others.

Watkins says the chamber music scene is “in very, very good shape.”

“We tend to have a very loyal and reliable audience of people,” he says. “But we always want to see a broader age range out there in the audiences.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.

Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival

Through June 26

Various venues

Tickets: $10-$60

(248) 559-2097