Summermusik: the festival where anything is possible

There’s a measure of excitement every time an arts group launches a new season. It’s much like the thrill of opening presents on your birthday, except that these are new concerts, new shows, new exhibits. They immediately become part of the cultural landscape that will define your year. When the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra kicks off a new Summermusik season, the experience is somehow elevated to a completely new level.

With music director Eckart Preu leading the way, it feels like you’re following Alice through the looking glass. You know there will be surprises, some of them quite extraordinary. Indeed, that’s why you’re there. But you have no idea exactly what those surprises will be.

Eckart Preu, Summermusik music director
Eckart Preu, Summermusik music director

Preu’s seasons are so unlike any others on the local music scene, it’s hard to imagine how he and his player-curators come up with it all. There are rarely any works from the traditional chamber orchestra canon. So does he have a room-sized blackboard filled with decades’ worth of musical possibilities, just waiting to be plucked out and placed on a Summermusik season?

“For the record, I don’t have a blackboard,” laughed Preu, speaking by phone from the Oculus, the New York City shopping center and transportation hub where he’d taken refuge from a sudden rainstorm. But he did admit that Summermusik’s programming trends toward the unexpected. When pressed, he agreed that “unexpected” is a word we hear too seldom in the world of classical music.

Hector Del Curto, bandoneon, Aug. 6-7
Hector Del Curto, bandoneon, Aug. 6-7

“What we do is a show,” said Preu. “It’s a performance – an illusion. We help people forget the daily grind. As I see it, my profession gives me the privilege of letting people connect with themselves.”

COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the orchestra’s 2020 season. While they did manage to put together several performances in 2021, Summermusik lasted just two weeks instead of the usual three. Everything was performed outside. Audiences were pleased by what they heard, but that’s not enough for Preu.

“I don’t want to just pick up where we left off,” he said. “I want to do something different. This season is our opportunity to do that.”

Preu’s desire to up the artistic ante is evident from Summermusik’s opening concert, “Tales of Two Countries,” featuring music from Peru and Argentina. All four works on the program are CCO premieres. He had been toying with this program since 2018, when he first crossed paths with Grammy-winning bandoneon player Hector Del Curto. It took another three years before they could get their performance schedules to sync. (Bandoneon, incidentally, is that accordion-ish instrument at the heart of nearly all tango music.) 

Now, at last, the stars have aligned, and Preu and Del Curto are about to perform in Cincinnati.

Ina Zdorovetchi, harp, Aug. 13-14
Ina Zdorovetchi, harp, Aug. 13-14

“I only know of one concerto for bandoneon,” said Preu, almost apologetically. “And, naturally, that is by Astor Piazzolla.” But Preu was determined to build a robust opening-night program around that concerto. After oodles of research, Preu has ended up with a program that includes “Last Round,” by Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov, and Gabriela Lena Frank’s deeply moody “Elegía Andina” (“Andean Elegy”).

Frank proved particularly intriguing to Preu. Though she was born and educated in the United States, her birthright connects her to four continents: Her mother is Peruvian-Spanish-Chinese, while her father’s heritage is Lithuanian-Jewish. Most interesting to Preu is that her compositions are fully immersed in much of that heritage.

In an online essay about the elegy, Frank said it “is one of my first written-down compositions to explore what it means to be of several ethnic persuasions, of several minds. It uses stylistic elements of Peruvian arca/ira zampoña panpipes (double-row panpipes, each row with its own tuning) to paint an elegiac picture of my questions.”

That is precisely the sort of musical exploration that Preu loves to include in Summermusik.

Vijay Venkatesh, piano, Aug. 20-21
Vijay Venkatesh, piano, Aug. 20-21

“Performances like this one stretch what we think a classical music concert can be,” he said. “That goes for the musicians – and me – as well as for the audience.”

Here are a few other highlights of 2022’s Summermusik:

  • ‘Harp Fantastique’
    7:30 p.m. Aug. 13, Mainstage series, SCPA Corbett Theatre, featuring harp soloist Ina Zdorovetchi. Works by György Ligeti (“Concerto Romanesc”), Arturo Marquez (“Mascaras,” concerto for harp) and Hector Berlioz (“Symphonie Fantastique,” arr. Arthur Lavandier).
  • ‘Clarinet on the Rocks’
    9:15 p.m. Aug. 17, Chamber Crawl series, New Riff Distillery. Works by Gerald Finzi (Five Bagatelles, Op. 23), Heinrich Baermann (“Adagio”), Carl Maria von Weber (from Clarinet Quintet in B-flat Major, Op. 34), Ralph Vaughan Williams (“Six Studies in English Folk Song”), Josef Lanner (“Bruder Halt!, Galopp, Op. 16”), Johann Strauss II (“Tritsch-Tratsch” Polka, Op. 214) and Béla Kovács (“Sholem-alekhem, rov Feidman!”).
  • ‘Sound Waves’
    9:15 p.m. Aug. 23, Chamber Crawl series, Newport Aquarium. Works by Camille Saint-Saëns (“Carnival of the Animals”), Alan Menken (“Under the Sea”), Eric Ewazen (excerpt from “Roaring Fork”), Malcolm Arnold (“Three Shanties for Wind Quintet”), Alexander Wurman (“March of the Penguins”), Valerie Coleman (“Red Clay & Mississippi Delta”), Astor Piazzolla (“Escualo”) and Leonard Bernstein (selections from “West Side Story”).

If you read those musical selections carefully, you may have noticed at least one piece that seemed wildly out of place. In that Aug. 13 concert, one of the works is Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.” Typically, the piece is performed by an orchestra with 90 or more musicians. At its very largest, CCO performs with 40-45 musicians.

“We’re also performing Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 and ‘La Mer’ this summer,” said Evan Gidley, CCO’s new executive director. “But the Berlioz is the one that is especially unusual – the orchestration includes alphorn, electric guitar and keyboard. It’s not your run-of-the-mill Berlioz.”

Yuri Yamashita, percussion, Summermusik Aug. 27
Yuri Yamashita, percussion, Aug. 27

Gidley just stepped into his new position in May, so he’s barely had a chance to settle in. Prior to coming here, the CCM grad – he was a saxophone performance major – spent several years as the personnel manager for the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. But already he’s keen on Preu’s approach to music and audiences.

“I think we have a unique place in the music world,” said Gidley. “I love that we are involved in so many collaborations. I love that we play in venues where you might not expect to find classical music. And I like the fact that we’re all in agreement that the Summermusik model is working well for us.”

It is a model, he believes, that still holds room for growth, both in size and in the endless invention that Summermusik has become known for, a particularly important consideration with CCO’s 50th anniversary coming up in 2024.

For Preu, though, Summermusik offers three weeks of opportunities.

“The bigger the organization, the more it is like a bus,” said Preu, who is also music director of the Long Beach, California, and Portland, Oregon, symphony orchestras. “You have to move very slowly and very carefully and at a very ponderous pace sometimes. But CCO is my race car. It’s very flexible, very quick. You can almost change from yesterday to today. I love my work with the larger orchestras, too. But here, we’re small and nimble. Here, anything is possible.”

For full line-up of concerts:

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