Cleveland Chamber Fest, In 3rd Year, Has Convivial Vibe

Members of Cleveland's GroundWorks DanceTheater perform Tan Dun's 'Ghost Opera' at ChamberFest Cleveland.  (Photos by Gary Adams)
Members of Cleveland’s GroundWorks DanceTheater perform Tan Dun’s ‘Ghost Opera’ at ChamberFest Cleveland.
(Photos by Gary Adams)
By Daniel Hautzinger

CLEVELAND – It may seem audacious and a bit premature to celebrate a third anniversary, but in the case of ChamberFest Cleveland, it’s justified. In three short years, the chamber music festival has blossomed from five concerts to nine, grown from an intern and volunteer organization to one with paid professional staff, and expanded to include a collaboration with a dance company, a family program, and 24 exceptional musicians.

Yura Lee, Orion Weiss, and Franklin Cohen in concert.
Yura Lee, Orion Weiss, and Franklin Cohen in concert at Mixon Hall.

ChamberFest seeks to be “a world-class chamber music festival where the connections between the musicians and the audience are as dynamic and engaging as the music itself,” according to its founders and artistic directors, father and daughter Franklin and Diana Cohen. (Franklin is principal clarinet of the Cleveland Orchestra and Diana is concertmaster of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra.)

It began when Diana approached her father with the idea for a chamber festival in Cleveland that would utilize multiple performance spaces, an inspiration taken from the Great Lakes Chamber Festival in Detroit. The Cohens set up a non-profit organization and tapped local connections for support, throwing a benefit concert with pianists Jonathan Biss and Orion Weiss (who would become a ChamberFest regular) and string players from the Cleveland Orchestra.

Pipa player Gao Hong performing at the Wine Spot.
Pipa player Gao Hong performing at Cleveland Heights’ Wine Spot.

With the help of Nancy Osgood, who teaches at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University and is now chair of ChamberFest’s board, the Cohens researched successful festivals for models. They then enlisted musician friends to play and launched ChamberFest in 2012 with a “Big Bang” (the season’s title).

Through thoughtful programming, diverse performance spaces, pre-concert lectures by festival speaker Patrick Castillo, post-concert divertissements, and, above all, outstanding musicianship, the festival has generated a convivial atmosphere filled with fantastic music.

And it has paid off. Many of the concerts in this year’s festival, which ran June 19-29 and was entitled THREE! in honor of its third year, were sold out. (Three was also an over-arching theme, with programs like “Revolving Thirds: From Darkness to Light” and “Love Triangle.”) Festival passes for all nine concerts were sold out before the first performance.

Amazingly, one of the most crowded events was also the most adventurous: Chinese composer Tan Dun’s eerie Ghost Opera for string quartet and pipa (a Chinese lute), with new choreography by David Shimotakahara, artistic director of Cleveland’s GroundWorks DanceTheater, whose dancers performed the work.

Percussionists Scott Christian, Alexander Cohen, and Luke Rinderknecht at Kulas Hall.
Percussionists Scott Christian, Alexander Cohen, and Luke Rinderknecht at Kulas Hall.

This was not standard chamber festival fare (“I’ve never done anything like this before,” said violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti). Ghost Opera has the musicians shouting, bowing gongs, clacking stones, splashing water, and traversing the stage, in addition to playing a Chinese folk tune and fragments of Bach. Add to this the inventive choreography and ethereal lighting by Dennis Dugan and you had a unique, transporting experience.

Ghost Opera’s success was enhanced by the works chosen to accompany it. The evening opened with three short percussion trios by John Cage, Nebojsa Jovan Zivkovic, and Alexandre Lunsqui that anticipated the percussive elements of the Tan Dun, as well as evoked its emotional range, from peaceable to raucous. Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 shared a haunted, spectral quality with Ghost Opera, preparing the audience for that more abstract piece.

Indeed, one of the most vital aspects of ChamberFest is its intelligent programming. The cleverly titled “Mélange à Trois” brought together trios from four different periods, each separated by at least 70 years, yet Haydn’s Trio No. 39 (“Gypsy Rondo”), Kodály’s Serenade for Two Violins and Viola, Zelenka’s Trio Sonata No. 5, and Paul Schoenfield’s Trio For Violin, Clarinet, and Piano were tied into a coherent whole by their common wild abandon and Eastern European elements. Another concert paired Bach’s Goldberg Variations, in an arrangement for string trio, with Iannis Xenakis’ Kottos for solo cello, drawing connections between both composers’ fascination with numbers and form.

Noah Bendix-Balgley, Diana Cohen, Orion Weiss, Robert deMaine, and Dimitri Murrath.
Noah Bendix-Balgley, Diana Cohen, Orion Weiss, Robert deMaine, and Dimitri Murrath.

Biographical rather than musical similarities bound together “Three Bouncing Czechs,” with works by Janáček, Erwin Schulhoff, and Dvořák. The juxtaposition of Dvořák’s golden Second Piano Quartet and Schulhoff’s desolate String Sextet accomplished something rare: It inspired thought beyond music, demonstrating the devastating psychological change wrought by World War I. Of course, it helped that both were brilliantly performed, the Schulhoff receiving ovations despite its intensity and unfamiliarity.

Well-chosen repertoire cannot make a festival alone. It is ultimately up to the musicians to interpret and convey the music, and ChamberFest boasted a sterling crop of performers, ten of whom have taken part in all three festivals. Besides the Cohens and their son/brother, Alexander Cohen, principal timpanist of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, participants included Noah Bendix-Balgley, recently appointed first concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic; Alex Klein, former principal oboe of the Chicago Symphony; violist Dimitri Murrath, who just received an Avery Fisher Career Grant; dual violinists and violists Yura Lee and Yehonatan Berick; and numerous other worthies. (Click here for a complete list of performers.)

But chamber music, intimate and communicative as it is, requires not only fine players but also chemistry between them. This is where ChamberFest truly excels. The musicians are all friends of the Cohens, and the primary rehearsal space is Franklin’s living room. Multiple participants emphasized that “the beautiful community amongst all the artists,” as cellist Julie Albers described it, was one of the main joys of the festival.

A ChamberFest Cleveland octet performs at the Cleveland Institute of Music's Mixon Hall.
A ChamberFest Cleveland nonet performs at the Cleveland Institute of Music’s Mixon Hall.

The genial rapport among the musicians was evident in their performances and infected every concert. Their obvious delight in playing great music with great friends banished any of the stodginess that can afflict classical-music concerts. Nor did the fun harm the performances: the musicians are committed to serious artistry, with congenial enjoyment a happy by-product.

Such a communal vibe allowed the audience to comfortably partake in the music and mingle with the players after concerts, especially during “postludes” featuring Q&A’s or dessert. Unconventional venues (that still have good acoustics) also contributed to the atmosphere: How can you not enjoy listening to music at the Wine Spot, a wine and beer store-cum-art gallery, while noshing on complimentary popcorn and a drink? Or while sitting in a barn at the Dunham Tavern Museum or in the sunny Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland?

ChamberFest’s affable ethos caused more traditional venues like churches or concert halls in the Cleveland Institute of Music to present a hospitable atmosphere as well (chamber music in the 19th century, after all, was often presented in living rooms among friends), while offering a new acoustical situation. Each of the seven venues thus presented a unique profile in feel and acoustics for a diverse and novel two weeks.

Robert deMaine and Nathan Farrington at the Wine Spot.
Robert deMaine and Nathan Farrington at the Wine Spot.

The variety of venues also allowed for a stronger connection to the community, moving the festival into multiple neighborhoods and to different cultural zones of Cleveland. ChamberFest, like Cleveland as a whole, has a devoted chamber-music audience. Numerous people attended every concert. Amicable conversation preceded and followed events and filled intermissions, so that by the end of two weeks there was a recognizable ChamberFest community, consisting not only of audience members but musicians, administrators, and staff.

In the end, every aspect of ChamberFest, from the programming and venues to the preludes and postludes, serves to create that community and nourish it with sublime music. And it has been exceedingly successful, offering a potential model for locally focused festivals across the country. For what’s better than music among friends?

For in-depth coverage of ChamberFest concerts by MCANA members Daniel Hathaway, Daniel Hautzinger, Nicholas Jones, and Mike Telin, see ClevelandClassical.

Daniel Hautzinger is entering his third year in the double degree program at Oberlin College and Conservatory, studying History and Piano. He is currently‘s Young Writer Fellow.