The cruelest month? For fans of classical music, the title undoubtedly belongs to August, when the vast majority of orchestras, ensembles and opera companies go on vacation, leaving frustrated concertgoers gazing glassily at their record collections.
That was my own situation three summers ago, when I was a new arrival to the Twin Cities from Northern Ireland. Back home, summer months were consumed by thumb twiddling, looking greedily at performance schedules for upcoming seasons and worrying about how to earn money as a freelance arts writer. Used to August being a classical wasteland, I resigned myself to a month of lolling on my St. Paul porch, sipping root beer (a rarity in Ireland) and watching chipmunks scuttle in the rockery.
But this, I quickly discovered, is not the Minnesota way. At least not anymore. In recent years, some enterprising musicians with Minnesota connections have stepped up to organize three intriguing classical festivals. To transplants like me, it seems a typically American story, brimming with can-do attitude and unhindered by a lack of previous entrepreneurial experience.
Googling randomly, I first discovered the Lakes Area Music Festival — a three-week extravaganza of orchestral concerts, chamber recitals and opera, all staged within the summer getaway haven of Brainerd.
How had this festival sprouted? From the mind of Scott Lykins, 31, the festival’s artistic and executive director. Eight years ago Lykins and four fellow students at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., were bouncing ideas for, as he put it, “something to do in the summer.”
A native of Nisswa, Minn., Lykins made an improbable suggestion: Why not venture to the Brainerd area, where his family lived, play a few concerts and see what happens?
The idea was not greeted with enthusiasm. “A lot of people, even our supporters,” he recalled, “were kind of skeptical about rural Minnesota being interested in classical music.”
But that skepticism was swiftly dispelled. “When we did the first concert in 2009, we figured maybe 50 people would come,” he said. “By the end of the season we had over 300 packed into a hot, sweaty church.”
Lykins has since expanded the Lakes Area Music Festival, with the 2017 lineup boasting six main-stage concerts and a headlining opera, “Carmen.” This year’s highlight looks to be a program of French orchestral music (Aug. 9) by Ravel, Poulenc and others featuring the St. Paul Ballet. (Last year’s standout was a performance of Benjamin Britten’s opera “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”)
How did Lykins build his festival so quickly? He credited the help of his associate artistic director, baritone John Taylor Ward, and all the assistance they get from Brainerd area residents.
“This year we have about 130 musicians, and they all stay with host families,” he said. “We have a team of volunteers who help with housing arrangements, providing meals and logistics.”
Covering expenses can be a challenge, though, because Lykins has adopted a counterintuitive financial model: All of the festival’s concerts are free — audiences don’t even need to register for tickets.
“We’re in a rural community,” he said. “Sixty percent our audience had never seen an opera before we started doing them. Free concerts make it accessible to families, for people who might think classical music is for the elite.”
So where does the money come from? “Seventy percent of our budget is met through individual gifts,” Lykins said proudly. “It’s people coming to concerts, determining the value for themselves, and then being generous.”
‘It’s just me’
Lykins isn’t the only entrepreneurial musician working to fill Minnesota summers with classical offerings. Another self-starter is Donald Livingston, a keyboard player and baroque specialist who founded the Twin Cities Early Music Festival in 2014, not long after his 50th birthday.
Like Lykins, Livingston launched his festival on a wing and a prayer. He had “zero experience,” he confessed. He also had zero funding and an abundance of friends warning him off August.
“So many people told me you can’t have it in summer, because everyone’s at the lake, or their cabin, or someplace,” he said, smiling.
It didn’t turn out that way. From a single weekend of events three years ago, the festival has expanded into a two-week cornucopia of concerts, workshops and recitals for Minnesotans who relish music of the baroque period. This year’s highlight? The Mirandola Ensemble’s Aug. 19 concert of vocal works by Thomas Weelkes, Thomas Morley and John Dowland.
Livingston is the festival’s buzzing factotum — the man who books the venues, sells the tickets, does the marketing.
“It’s just me,” he said, “in my spare bedroom, on my computer, with whatever arrangements I can pull out of thin air.”
The source for Source
Pianist Mark Bilyeu tells a similar story. The idea for his Source Song Festival, also based in the Twin Cities, was hatched with mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski during a transatlantic flight home from a French song festival. Bilyeu and Osowski, both in their early 30s, were busy professional musicians when the call came to create something new.
“We thought we could take all the good experiences we’ve had at festivals, nix all the bad ones, and create something really special here in Minnesota,” Bilyeu said.
For Bilyeu, August was the perfect time to plant the seeds of this new undertaking, “because it’s a notoriously down month.”
From the inaugural festival in 2014, he and Osowski have built Source into a weeklong celebration of art song. This year’s highlights include world premieres by Minnesota composers Libby Larsen, David Evan Thomas and Jonathan Posthuma (Aug. 7), plus a recital of Canadian art song (Aug. 8).
Source festival audiences have more than tripled in the first three years. Bilyeu recalled just 36 people attending their inaugural concert in 2014, while last year’s final recital drew 250.
All three festivals grew rapidly, keeping me busy — and surprised and delighted — during my first three Minnesota summers. Excited for another busy August of concertgoing this year, I suggested to Bilyeu that he and his fellow festival boosters are to the Minnesota classical music scene what craft brewers are to the beer industry — purveyors of a distinctive local product, at a period when corporate brands and entities seem increasingly distant and distrusted.
Bilyeu laughed heartily. “I’ll take that,” he said. “That’s pretty much exactly what we’re doing.”
Terry Blain writes about classical music and theater.