Out of the chamber … under the stars

Summermusik goes outdoors

Switching to a summer music festival format in 2015 was, as Executive Director LeAnne Anklan puts it, “an absolute renaissance” for the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra and sparked the remarkable growth it has seen in the intervening years.

The ensemble continues that innovative spirit this August with “Summermusik Under the Stars,” which will bring the orchestra to new outdoor venues. It will keep its tradition of thematic programming, exploring issues of mental health and women in music. 

Both themes are timely, but the latter is particularly relevant to the CCO itself: Anklan is part of a female leadership team that also includes board president Terri Abare; communications director Ann Stewart; and concertmaster Celeste Boyer. Nineteen of its 28 musicians (including eight orchestral leaders) are women, as are both of this year’s soloists. And two of this summer’s concerts will focus on women composers. 

Some of the women of the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra

Themes that resonate

Summermusik may look a bit different this year, but fans will still recognize many of their favorite elements. After going virtual in 2020, Summermusik moves outdoors this summer to allow a more socially distant experience. It will continue to feature three types of performances: Full orchestra concerts at Eden Park’s Seasongood Pavilion; Sunday afternoon concerts at Coney Island’s Moonlite Pavilion; and Chamber Crawl concerts at the Cincinnati Zoo’s Wings of Wonder Amphitheater, Coney Island’s Moonlite Pavilion and Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park’s Pavilion. In total, there will be seven opportunities to see members of the CCO in action this season. 

Then there are Summermusik’s traditional themes, which run through several of this season’s performances. 

“We choose those themes very carefully,” Abare said. “We try to make them relevant, (and) we try to address social issues, as we’re doing this August.” 

Anklan and Abare credit music director Eckart Preu with developing themes that resonate.

“What matters to people? That is my starting point,” Preu said. “What is important to our society right now?” 

Considering the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health seemed like a timely choice.

“I think we all, every single person coming out of the pandemic needs musical therapy,” he said. “Music is probably the most powerful tool there is for mental therapy.”

“Mindful Musik” (Aug. 6), the CCO’s first main stage program of the season, highlights music by composers who dealt with isolation, anxiety and depression: “Lyric for Strings” by George Walker, the first Black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music; Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4; and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme.” Cello prodigy Sujari Britt, who played for former President Obama and appeared on NPR’s “From the Top,” will perform the last piece.

“Restorative Strings” (Aug. 8), a Sunday afternoon performance, explores similar themes. Britt will again perform with the CCO. She’ll present the world premiere of her own composition “No One’s Driving,” which reflects on the impact of social isolation during the pandemic. 

Showcasing female composers and artists was in the works for 2020, dubbed the “Year of the Woman” in celebration of the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. But as Preu notes, it’s a “theme of our time” that’s equally relevant this year. 

“For centuries there have been (women) performers, there have been (women) composers, but they’ve been suppressed very successfully,” he said. “They’ve been banned to the kitchen.

“The really shocking thing is that famous, famous composers … really bought into the notion of ‘no, women are not supposed to compose,’ ” Preu added.

He sees shining a light on forgotten female composers, many whose work has not been published or recorded, as something that will require years of dedication. 

There does seem to be a long way to go: Data collected by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra from 21 major American orchestras showed that only 1.8% of the works they performed during their 2014-2015 seasons were by female composers.

“Her Voice,” a Sunday afternoon concert (Aug. 15), features the world premiere of a century-old composition by Lilian Elkington, in addition to music by other female composers. Six of the CCO’s female principals will be featured.

Additionally, CCO’s second mainstage performance, “Women in Musik” (Aug. 20), highlights African-American composer Jessie Montgomery’s “Starburst,” Indian-American composer Reena Esmail’s “Teen Murti’’ and Gabriella Smith’s “Brandenburg Interstice.” Grammy-nominated violinist Caroline Goulding will close out the concert (and the festival) performing Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5, “Turkish.” 

Anklan said that during her nine years with CCO, the orchestra has always been open to female perspectives and leadership. 

“But it is rare to have so many leaders at the same time … to have everyone be female at the top,” she said. “I’ve been really proud to stand next to our board president, who’s also female.” 

“I think there is some intentionality not just in bringing women in, but bringing in differing cultures, different groups, different voices,” Abare added. “That very much is a core value for our organization.”

Anklan said she’s seen an uptick in female leadership at other organizations, too. Data from the League of American Orchestras seems to support that observation: They show that since 2010, women have made up 50.4% to 55.1% of orchestras’ top executives. Women comprise 46% to 49% of orchestral musicians and 42% of orchestra board members.

Some of the women of the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra

A new concept 

Even before Summermusik’s debut, the CCO had been known for its unusual partnerships and interesting stage collaborations. But by the organization’s 40th anniversary season in 2013-2014, things had gotten stagnant. 

“We had support from the people who knew us and loved us, but we weren’t really getting attention from new people,” said Anklan, the CCO’s only full-time staff member. “We found that we kind of blended in with a large group of other organizations.”

“We’re so lucky in Cincinnati; we have an embarrassment of riches in the arts, the musical arts in particular,” Abare said. “It’s important to be able to offer something that’s unique and different that people remember and look for.”

A board member posed an idea to stand out: Moving to a summer festival format. The local arts calendar had a gap in August, when many organizations were gearing up for their seasons to start.

So the CCO launched Summermusik – using the German word for ‘music’ as a nod to the city’s German heritage – in 2015. 

“It’s been an absolute renaissance for the organization,” Anklan said. “We’ve had incredible growth during the last few years.”

From the launch of Summermusik in 2015 through 2019 (the festival was virtual in 2020), the ensemble saw 278% growth in pass sales/subscriptions and a 78% increase in overall season attendees. 

Anklan said some fans blind-purchase tickets or passes for fear they’ll miss out. The ensemble often reaches new people when supporters tell or invite their friends – who quickly become fans. 

Those collaborations with other arts organizations – they’ve worked with everyone from Madcap Puppets to Cincinnati Shakespeare Company – bring in new fans as well. 

It’s part of what enticed Preu, who’s also music director of the Long Beach Symphony in California and the Portland Symphony Orchestra in Maine, to come on board in 2016. 

“What I really loved about the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra is that they’re always collaborating,” he said. “There was always some enriching element adding a new dynamic to the music.

“For many people, classical music isn’t something they grew up with, so they need other points of entry,” he added. 

Although the collaborations aren’t new, the CCO is marketing the offerings differently, focusing on approachability and fun.

“We want to be available and approachable to people who may have never attended a classical music performance before,” Abare said. “They might think it’s stuffy. They might think you have to come in with a lot of knowledge. We just try to break down those barriers and keep bringing new people in the fold, because it’s just a lovely experience.” 

“Music is all about emotions,” Preu said. “You can talk about music day in and day out. In the end, it’s all about what you feel when you are there. If you have 100 people listening to music in the same place, you have 100 different experiences. It’s hard to explain what happens,” he added. “The important thing is that something happens.”

He and the rest of the CCO hope more people will be part of that experience this summer.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of celebration,” Preu said. “I think that’s what this summer is going to be about.”

Some of the women of the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra

Summermusik 2021

Mindful Musik (full orchestra)

Friday, Aug. 6, 8 p.m., Seasongood Pavilion, Eden Park 

Restorative Strings (chamber music)

Sunday, Aug. 8, 4 p.m., Moonlite Pavilion, Coney Island

The Fab Five + Friends (pop chamber music)

Tuesday, Aug. 10, 8 p.m., Moonlite Pavilion, Coney Island

SummerZOOzik (chamber music)

Saturday, Aug. 14, 6 & 8 p.m., Wings of Wonder Amphitheater, Cincinnati Zoo 

Her Voice (chamber music)

Sunday, Aug. 15, 4 p.m., Moonlite Pavilion, Coney Island

Organic MicroBrass (chamber music)

Tuesday, Aug. 17, 8 p.m., Pyramid Hill Pavilion, Hamilton

Women in Musik (full orchestra)

Friday, Aug. 20, 8 p.m., Seasongood Pavilion, Eden Park 

513-723-1182 or www.ccocincinnati.org

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