Summermusik 2023: Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra’s musical adventure

“Pretty ambitious stuff here,” read the email from a friend, a notable local musician.

He wasn’t bragging. Rather, he had attached a press release that featured the lineup for the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra’s 2023 Summermusik festival.

The friend wasn’t wrong. As with every other season since its founding in 2015, this year’s edition of Summermusik is filled with offerings that are quirky and ingenious in the ways that they explore the nooks and crannies of the orchestral repertoire.

Don’t be misled by the “chamber music” part of CCO’s name. Under the leadership of music director Eckart Preu, CCO has developed into an ensemble willing to go almost anywhere, musically speaking. What’s more, Maestro Preu makes it all so intriguing that the audience willingly tags along for the adventure.

Eckart Preu, Summermusik music director
Eckart Preu, CCO and Summermusik music director

Is it occasionally challenging? Absolutely. But it is always intellectually invigorating. And sometimes downright entertaining.

Preu makes us pay attention in ways that we might not otherwise do. He cobbles together unusual pairings of music. Not just unusual, but really unusual. He delivers performances in the most unexpected venues. And once we’re there, he dares us to open our eyes and ears and let the music envelop us.

“Staying with the tried and true – that would be the death of orchestras,” said Preu. “Orchestras – all arts organizations, actually – have been struggling. We have to continue to find new and interesting ways to get audiences to come back. Because when they do come back, they rediscover what they’ve been missing. They fall in love with the music all over again.”

And Summermusik, he feels, is the ideal forum for that. As he told Movers & Makers last year, within the context of Summermusik “anything is possible.” 

So the 2023 festival will begin with Beethoven. But not just any Beethoven. The first concert opens with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 10 – the work that Beethoven left uncompleted when he died in 1827. In 1988, using the generous musical scraps the composer left behind, musicologist Barry Cooper recreated the first two movements of what he imagined Beethoven might have written. (Musicians working with artificial intelligence programs created their own version of Beethoven’s 10th in 2019.)

Awadagin Pratt
Awadagin Pratt

The Aug. 5 performance also includes pianist and impresario Awadagin Pratt performing the world premiere of Cees Nieuwenhuizen’s reconstruction of Beethoven’s unfinished Piano Concerto No. 6. The closing work on the all-Beethoven program is a performance of Symphony No. 5, incorporating an actor from The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati as the composer.

“People want to be entertained,” said Preu. “But they also want something that is deep and intimate, something that will stay with them for a while. That is the sort of thing that we are all about.”

Each of the 13 presentations during the month-long festival comes with its own set of surprises.

For instance, there are a pair of Bach programs; “The Bachs: A Musical Dynasty” (Aug. 12) and “Sons of Bach” (Aug. 13). Both feature flutist Mimi Stillman. And like the Beethoven concert, nothing is quite as you might expect it.

Stillman was something of a child prodigy. Admitted as an undergraduate at the Curtis Institute of Music when she was 12, she followed up with a master’s in history from the University of Pennsylvania. That was all by the time she was 21.

Mimi Stillman
Mimi Stillman

From there, she went on to found Philadelphia’s Dolce Suono Ensemble and its performance series in 2005. “We’ve performed 66 world premieres,” she crowed.

She is, by any definition, an inveterate overachiever. In 2012, for instance, she set out to record herself playing Debussy’s “Syrinx” every day for a year, no matter where she was. Then, she posted the results on YouTube. You can see all 385 performances (including 20 “bonus” performances): www.youtube.com/@SyrinxJourney.

The historian in her was excited to be included in the Bach programs, especially since the repertoire wasn’t run-of-the-mill and she would have a chance to put the music into some sort of historical context.

“I don’t think it’s enough just to know a piece of music,” said Stillman. “You also need to know what was going on in the world when it was created. It affords a much deeper understanding of the music.”

Squeezed in among all the Bach, she adds, she’ll be playing the world premiere of Zhou Tian’s Flute Concerto, co-commissioned by CCO.

Particularly noteworthy will be the appearance of Arturo Sandoval. He’s a near-legendary jazz trumpet player, a winner of 10 Grammy Awards, an Emmy for his compositions and a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Arturo Sandoval
Arturo Sandoval
(Photo by Jeremy Lock)

He’s 73 now, well past the age that most brass players – especially energetic soloists like him – step away from live performances.

“Not me,” he insists. “The problem with success is that no one cares tonight what you played last night. You always have to give 100%. You have to keep that standard high. With age, it’s difficult to maintain, to try to keep the standard you established long ago. But,” he says, laughing heartily, “it’s not impossible. You will see.”

He was raised in Artemisa, Cuba, a coffee-growing center a little more than an hour’s drive from Havana. As a preteen, he began playing in village bands. But as his talent became more apparent, he was sent to the then-new Cuban National School of Arts. It offered a fairly traditional conservatory training.

“But one day, a journalist talked to me and asked if I was familiar with jazz,” he said. “But to be honest, I didn’t really know what that was. He played for me a vinyl record, a compilation of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker from 1946 or 1947. ‘Oh, my goodness, what is that,’ I said. He said ‘That is jazz, my friend.’ I didn’t know exactly what that meant. But I decided I was going to try to play it.”

Within a decade, he was touring the world with Gillespie. And during one of those tours, Gillespie accompanied him to the American embassy in Athens, where Sandoval requested political asylum.

“The rest is history, my friend,” he said. “And for me, it has been a very good, very lucky history.”

Like Sandoval, violinist Tessa Lark took an unorthodox journey into her musical career. Born and raised in Richmond, Ky., she started her formal violin training in Suzuki classes at age 6. But long before that, she was already enmeshed in the world of gospel bluegrass, listening to her father, Bob Frederick, play the banjo. (You can see them perform together: www.youtube.com/watch?v=IWS-hbT01D0)

With a background like that, it’s hardly a surprise that her two CCO performances will include everything from Antonín Dvořák to Jessie Montgomery, from Scott Joplin to Michael Torke.

Tessa Lark
Tessa Lark

Predictably, she is regularly asked how she manages to bob back and forth from classical to bluegrass and to perform both so proficiently.

“When people ask that, I usually relate it to being bilingual,” she said. “I used to be so shy about playing bluegrass. But with the surge of interest in American folk music, with the confluence of that and classical music, I get much more encouragement than I did when I was younger.”

She recalls being 9 years old and playing with 75-year-old bluegrass legends. 

“I was just learning the tunes as they completely shred on them,” she said. “It was an amazing way to grow up. And it’s something that never leaves you.”

But even as her classical career has soared, she hears the occasional pushback about her split musical interests.

“I think there is still hesitancy when you try to book a Brahms concerto,” she said. “Just yesterday I was nerding out over Brahms. Sometimes you sense them thinking ‘Isn’t she an Americana player?’ There is still that pushback about an artist doing multiple things at high standards. That’s one of the things I really like about Summermusik. It’s about all kinds of music. And it is all treated with equal respect. It’s refreshing. And it’s inspiring, because I know I’ll never stop being curious about different styles of music.”


Summermusik 2023, featured guest artists

Awadagin Pratt, piano

  • Aug. 5, 7:30 p.m. “Beethoven Reconstructed” (SCPA Corbett Theater)
  • Aug. 6, 4 p.m. “Sound of Silence” (Knox Presbyterian Church)

Mimi Stillman, flute

  • Aug. 12, 7:30 p.m. “The Bachs: A Musical Dynasty” (Christ Church Cathedral)
  • Aug. 13, 4 p.m. “Sons of Bach” (Northminster Church)

Arturo Sandoval, trumpet

  • Aug. 19, 7:30 p.m. “A Night in Havana” (SCPA Corbett Theater)
  • Aug. 20, 4 p.m. “Afro-Cuban Afternoon” (Roger Bacon HS Performing Arts Center)

Tessa Lark, violin

  • Aug. 25, 7:30 p.m. “Fiddlin’ Folk” (The Barn)
  • Aug. 26, 4 p.m. “Americana” (SCPA Corbett Theater)

More Summermusik concerts at www.ccocincinnati.org 


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