The weeks immediately following the holidays tend to be comparatively quiet on the classical-music front as Chicago-area audiences take a break after the festivities and hole up at home to avoid the often-oppressive winter weather.
One bright and shining exception has been Northwestern University’s Winter Chamber Music Festival, which has thrived during this unlikely time period, marking its 25th anniversary last year.
“There are many regular audience members,” said Blair Milton, an associate professor of violin who directs the series. “A good number of those who made up the original audiences are still with us 26 years later. There are even quite a few who have been to every one of the 159 concerts.”
Marking its return to a full schedule after canceled and abridged offerings in 2021 and 2022, respectively, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival returns Jan. 6-22 for six concerts beginning with the Calidore String Quartet and double bassist Xavier Foley.
A boon to the event has been its home venue — the 1,003-seat Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, which opened in 1975.
“Pick-Staiger is a very welcoming hall to play in and listen in,” Milton said. “It’s large enough and small enough. It’s very intimate feeling. You always feel you are close to the stage no matter where you are sitting and the acoustic is excellent for chamber music.”
Milton, who is also a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conceived the festival in 1997 as a way for what is now known as the Bienen School of Music to mark the centennial of Johannes Brahms’ death. So, all six of the inaugural concerts featured chamber music by the famous composer.
Double bassist Xavier Foley debuts makes his Winter Chamber Music Festival debut in a program with Calidore String Quartet on Jan. 6 at Bienen School.
Immediately putting the event on the map that first year was the participation of Daniel Barenboim, then the CSO’s music director. He is also an internationally renowned pianist, and he performed with four members of the orchestra.
Despite it taking place on Super Bowl Sunday in the middle of a snowstorm, demand was so high for Barenboim’s concert that Pick-Staiger staff had to set up 200 extra seats in the balcony and 75 more on stage. And even with the additional places, some people were still turned away.
Milton hoped the festival would become an annual event, but he knew that school officials would only allow it to continue if it did well. “But it was such success the first year,” he said, “that they said, ‘Ok, good, what are we doing next year?'”
Because of Milton’s connection to the CSO, many of the early concerts featured players from the ensemble. But about 15 years ago, the orchestra began scheduling international tours in January, causing the musicians to be less available.
So, the series began featuring more touring artists and ensembles, including such prominent groups as the Escher Quartet and St. Lawrence String Quartet and soloists like cellists Lynn Harrell and Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Garrick Ohlsson.
The Calidore String Quartet returns for its fifth appearance at the Winter Chamber Music Festival.
The festival has regularly presented up-and-coming winners of the prestigious Banff (Alberta, Canada) International String Quartet Competition, which is held every three years. Indeed, this year’s installation features the 2022 winner of the Banff competition, the Isidore Quartet, on Jan. 13. It was formed in 2019 as a student ensemble at the Juilliard School in New York City.
While the festival presents groups with other instrumental combinations, like wind quintets or piano trios, it has put an emphasis on string quartets, presenting 23 different such groups, with some making multiple appearances. For example, the Calidore Quartet, which received an Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2018, is returning for its fifth visit.
Other string quartets featured during the 2023 festival are the New Orford String Quartet (Jan. 15) from Canada and the Jupiter String Quartet (Jan. 22). The one featured touring group that is not a string foursome is the Horszwoski Trio, a piano-anchored ensemble, which is set for Jan 20.
Jupiter String Quartet is scheduled for a Jan. 22 concert at the Winter Chamber Music Festival.
Harking back to 1997, four CSO musicians — associate concertmaster Stephanie Jeong, violinist Simon Michal, violist Weijing Michal and assistant principal cellist Kennith Olsen — will take part in an Jan. 8 concert, about two weeks before they leave for a North American tour.
Joined by noted pianist Adam Neiman, they will culminate their all-Brahms concert with the composer’s Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34, the same work in which Barenboim appeared.
“That will be,” Milton said, “a little way of remembering and honoring that opening season.”
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