Classical Minnesota Stories

Lakes Area Music Festival puts world-class live performances online for free

Although this year's Lakes Area Music Festival will be online, all performances have been professionally captured to give listeners the best possible experience.LAMF

Interview: Lakes Area Music Festival 2020


July 23, 2020
Interview: David Portillo at LAMF
by MPR
Interview: Kenny Broberg at LAMF
by MPR

WATCH: Live performances from Lakes Area Music Festival on Classical MPR's Facebook page!

Did you miss seeing a LAMF concert live? click here to see a YouTube playlist of this year's performances.

"Cancellation." It's a word that Scott Lykins has attempted to keep at bay these past few months, but he admits it has occasionally reared its ugly head.

Lykins is co-founder of the Lakes Area Music Festival (LAMF) in Brainerd. Like so many other managers in his position, he has been struggling with the ruinous effects of the coronavirus on the performing arts industry.

Canceling the 2020 festival completely would have been the easy option, and Lykins says it "has been in the back of our minds at certain points."

Yet he and associate artistic director John Taylor Ward have soldiered on, determined to deliver a 12th annual festival of some sort for a Brainerd audience that has taken the pair's initiative warmly to its heart.

But how do you make music in a pandemic? Social distancing protocols made the festival's orchestral concerts impossible. An ambitious production of Richard Wagner's opera The Flying Dutchman was another casualty.

Violist Olivia Chew
Violist Olivia Chew.

With indoor gatherings virtually impossible to manage safely, Lykins and Ward eventually settled on "a digital season to enjoy from your home" — 11 chamber music concerts combining the best of LAMF musicianship, streamed free on Facebook, YouTube and Classical MPR's website.

These are anything but lo-fi, bedsit recitals filmed shakily on a smartphone. Lykins has hired professional videographers to capture the concerts, and all of the performers are traveling to Brainerd to rehearse properly beforehand and make the recordings.

Viola player Olivia Chew is one of them. For her, going to Brainerd is a massive release from weeks of stay-at-home isolation and unemployment.

"Because of the pandemic, I was starved for music making," she says. "This has been the longest block of time I've spent without ensemble playing in maybe 15 years.

"But after the first rehearsal at LAMF, we were all so giddy and energized, we felt like we could have rehearsed for another two hours."

Despite a raft of measures aimed at minimizing the possibility of viral transmission at the festival — masks for string players, hand sanitizers, social distancing — Chew concedes she still had worries about participating.

"The week before I was supposed to leave cases were surging around the country, so I was pretty nervous about flying," she says.

"I considered canceling my attendance at the last minute, but I kept thinking about how much I missed ensemble playing and how I would regret passing on this opportunity."

A total of 40 performers from the 200 originally contracted for the festival will move in and out of Brainerd over a five-week period for rehearsal and recording purposes, before the finished concert videos begin appearing online on July 31.

"We've had people driving in from Toronto, New York and the West Coast," Lykins says. "Some major road trips have been happening, and we hope they enjoy that aspect after being cooped up a lot."

Choosing pieces for the artists to play has been an especially consequential process in a year where clouds of social upheaval and pandemic have hung heavily over the United States.

"We realized pretty early on that programming this particular season demanded more than just picking our favorite pieces and playing them," Lykins says.

More than 30 composers feature across the 11 recitals, many of them chosen because their music speaks eloquently to the sense of isolation many have felt in the coronavirus period.

"And after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, we went back again and took a look at how we are using our platform to amplify voices of color," Lykins adds.

The inclusion of works by African American composers such as Valerie Coleman, Harry Burleigh, Margaret Bonds and Florence Price was the happy consequence.

"And we hope we've also built a sense of joy into these recitals as each one moves to its conclusion," Lykins says.

Works such as Antonin Dvoř ak's Piano Quintet (August 5) and Camille Saint-Saens' Septet for Trumpet, Strings and Piano (August 9) reflect that positive intention.

But how will it feel for the musicians, playing without a live audience present? Will it inhibit them in any way?

Chew thinks not.

"We intend to run through the pieces with other festival musicians in the room," she says.

"That will help give us the feeling of playing for an audience, and we can get their feedback before we record. But it's definitely strange to try to capture that feeling of the ephemeral live performance without being able to share it with an audience."

For Chew, one piece of music in particular typifies what LAMF 2020 is trying to achieve, in a year when all normal bets are off and musicians have been scrambling to put shape and meaning into their suddenly empty schedules.

"We start each of our Beethoven quartet rehearsals playing through the third movement of his Opus 132 quartet, which he titled 'Holy Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent,'" she says.

Chew's quartet includes that work, composed by Beethoven while recovering from a serious illness, in its Aug. 2 recital. She points especially to a moment in the slow movement when the music picks up speed, and Beethoven writes "feeling new strength" in the score.

"I think that really resonates with all of us here in this unusual period of time we're living through," Chew says. "All of the musicians at LAMF feel re-energized after a period of musical drought, and we are all immensely grateful to be making music again."

The Lakes Area Music Festival runs online from July 31 to Aug. 16. Listen to live broadcasts and interviews on Classical MPR, and view the full schedule at LAMF's website. Watch the live performances on Classical MPR's Facebook page.

Interviews with Steve Staruch

Scott Lykins and Taylor Ward, the founders and artistic directors of the Lakes Area Music Festival in Brainerd, spoke with Classical MPR host Steve Staruch about the decision to carry on with this year's festival while embracing social distancing by hosting the festival online.

Metropolitan Opera star David Portillo was singing at the Met when COVID-19 hit. He's been hunkered down at his home in St. Louis Park ever since, but will be performing for the first time since quarantine began this weekend at the Lakes Area Music Festival. Portillo's "Night at the Opera" program will take place on Saturday, Aug. 1, at 7:30 p.m. central. He also chatted with Staruch.

Internationally lauded pianist Kenny Broberg is performing this week at the Lakes Area Music Festival. Broberg spoke with Steve Staruch about his upcoming performances.

Listen to these interviews using the players above.