The combination of a relaxed, summery atmosphere and lofty musical artistry is a potent one. As western New York's summer chamber music festivals attest, it is also a popular one. One summer music festival preceded the others: The Skaneateles Festival, which held its first program in 1980, is celebrating its 35th anniversary in 2014, and has reinvented itself a few times in the intervening years.
Picturesquely placed on a lake and still full of 19th- and early-20th-century charm, Skaneateles is the perfect example of an upstate New York summer town, and the Skaneateles Festival is the model of an ambitious summer music festival. It takes place over four weeks in August (starting this year on Wednesday, August 6), each week with its own programming theme. Concerts take place in local churches and other venues in or near town; the festival traditionally winds up with a larger-scale outdoor concert at Brook Farm, whose large porch can accommodate a small orchestra and whose lawn can accommodate a large audience.
In its three and a half decades, Skaneateles has caught a few rising musical stars on their way to bigger things. For example, the popular violinist Hilary Hahn has been a frequent Festival performer since she was a teenager. But it is also a mecca for regional musicians. Its artistic directors since 2005 have been the Eastman School's Elinor Freer and David Ying, and visitors from Rochester will recognize many other familiar faces from the Eastman School of Music and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra: violists Phillip Ying and Melissa Matson, cellists Steven Doane and Rosemary Elliott, flutist Joanna Bassett, among others.
Like such other venerable summer festivals as Mostly Mozart and Glimmerglass, the Skaneateles Festival has learned the value of reinventing itself in middle age, and offering interesting innovative programming. The classical music world, and music consumption, has changed radically since 1980, and the Skaneateles Festival has kept up with the developments. Younger musicians have long, long playlists, and their genre-busting concert programming choices (and their youthful rebellious streaks) reflect that. It's no longer rare to see, say, a string quartet play Beethoven or Bartók and follow it up with a tune by Ellington, Hendrix, Zappa, the theme from "Game of Thrones," or a traditional Korean song.
It's also not unusual for these groups to engage the audience directly, talking about the music or about themselves. Even the 2014 festival's senior guest ensemble, the venerable Shanghai Quartet, which formed in 1983 and has performed all over the world, will offer an informal, interactive "FamilyFest" program on August 13.
This year, Skaneateles offers two of the most prominent of these new-style chamber ensembles: the "amplified chamber band" Fireworks Ensemble (with actual fireworks after their show) and Time for Three.
And this year, the Festival also looks to the East for inspiration: music inspired by the traditional Gypsy music of Eastern Europe, and traditional East Asian musical elements each get their own week of exploration.
For its first week — titled "Many Happy Returns!" — the festival glances backward, inviting musicians who performed frequently in the festival's early years. Solid, 19th-century European chamber music repertoire by Schumann, Brahms, and the boys sets the tone, at least until the final concert, which features the Fireworks Ensemble in its Skaneateles debut.
The Skaneateles Festival pulls out the multicultural stops for its middle weeks. "East Meets West," in the second week, features music fusing traditional Asian musical elements with Western art by two experts in the genre: the Shanghai Quartet, whose repertoire ranges from the complete Beethoven quartets to contemporary Chinese-American composers, and Music from China, a group that combines traditional Chinese instruments with modern instruments, all performed by native Chinese musicians.
The East-West influence is nothing new, of course: European composers like Rimsky-Korsakov and Maurice Ravel were powerfully influenced by the sounds, and the idea, of the "mysterious East" — most obvious, in Ravel's case, in his song cycle "Shéhérazade," a featured work on one of this week's concerts. You can also hear some of the sounds that did the influencing. In the multicultural 21st century, Western audiences are better prepared to take their Central and East Asian music neat, and you can hear some examples of the real thing performed by Music from China, as well as highly regarded contemporary composers like Chen Yi and Zhou Long.
It's a cliché to describe Gypsy music as vibrant and soulful, passionate and temperamental. Then again, it is all those things, and it has been an energizing influence on classical music since the 18th century — from Haydn movements marked all'Ungherese, "in the Hungarian style," to Liszt's glittery Hungarian Rhapsodies for piano, to more authentic evocations by Kodály, Bartók, and Osvaldo Golijov, all of which can be heard during the third week of the festival. Ravel (who had a lot of musical influences) turns up again, as the composer of "Tzigane", a florid "Gypsy rhapsody" for violin and piano.
The final week is usually the most festive of the four, and this year's finale brings still more happy returns in the form of ensembles who have performed there previously. The conductor-less East Coast Chamber Orchestra, performs a favorite, Tchaikovsky's "Serenade for Strings," as well as a string-orchestra arrangement of a great string quartet, Janacek's First. For Labor Day weekend, Time for Three shake the porch at Brook Farm. This trio consists of violinists Zach De Pue and Nick Kendall and double bassist Ranaan Meyer. Impressively, their program list consists of 42 pieces, from J.S. Bach to Katy Perry — a music festival in a nutshell.