There are no program notes for Saugatuck Chamber Music Festival performances. Instead, musicians tell the stories behind the compositions directly to the audience before playing the piece.
This is one small component within a larger intention to create human connection through a form of classical music that can seem aloof and intimidating to the uninitiated, according to Andrew Le, co-artistic director of the festival.
The festival celebrates 30 years of chamber music performances this season alongside a veteran group of local musicians, as well as high-caliber guest artists from outside the region. Every Thursday and Friday from July 6 to August 11, the festival offers intimate, laid-back performances at the Saugatuck Woman’s Club.
“We treat and view our performances as not only a time for the audience to enjoy music, but also a space for our core family of musicians to come together for the summer,” Le said. “It’s more like a casual get-together for the community than a production.”
Le and his wife Jennifer Walvoord are in their ninth year as co-artistic directors at the festival. Both Le and Walvoord are immersed in the classical music community during the main season.
Walvoord is concertmaster with the West Michigan Symphony, director of marketing and assistant principal violin with the Holland Symphony Orchestra, and an active chamber musician and teacher. Le is the Associate Professor of Piano at Hope College, founder of Holland’s Brown Bag Concert Series, a violinist with the Holland Symphony Orchestra, and runs his own photography business. The festival weeks provide them a chance to rejuvenate and reflect on their work during the summer months.
“It’s like a mini-sabbatical,” Le said. “It allows me to slow down, think about what’s important and how I can be a better performer and teacher.”
Many of the festival performers are musicians in the Grand Rapids Symphony. Chamber music provides a middle ground for musicians who may get lost in the sea of talent onstage, or for musicians like Le who often practice or perform alone due to the nature of their instrument. The festival setting satiates artistically and personally as musicians return to their roots and reaffirm why they entered the profession.
Alicia Eppinga, principal cello with the Grand Rapids Symphony, is a regular with the festival and particularly enjoys its focus on community.
“I love playing with the friends I’ve known for a long time, with the new musicians that come each year, and for the wonderful audience that is so engaged and friendly,” she said.
For the festival’s 30th year, Le and Walvoord expanded programming to include more guest artists. Among those performing this year is the Claremont Trio on July 6 and 7, lauded by Strad Magazine as “one of America’s finest young chamber groups.”
The Chicago-based Kontras Quartet performs the July 27 and 28 program as well as a free concert for young listeners the morning of July 27. In the nurturing spirit of the festival, the Claremont Trio and Kontras Quartet are presenting master classes to train tomorrow’s musicians while they visit Saugatuck with West Michigan University Professor of Bassoon Wendy Rose.
The compositions featured on the festival programs offer an eclectic balance between traditional and new. At a time when a conversation is stirring within the classical sector about the lack of gender diversity on programs, the festival features several brilliant female composers, including Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel and contemporary composers Gabriela Lena Frank and Libby Larsen.
Ultimately, Le and Walvoord hope the music heard by festival guests is relevant to their daily lives and inspires future generations to pursue the art form in any way that suits them.
“(Chamber music) was pop music back in the day, and it takes creativity, vision and courage to present it in a different way,” Le said. “So much energy and hard work went into creating this music, and it would be a shame to let it be forgotten. (These composers) were visionaries, and we have to be visionaries too.”
Saugatuck Chamber Music Festival
Saugatuck Woman’s Club
303 Butler St., Saugatuck
July 6-Aug. 11 (Thursday and Friday evenings), 7:30 p.m.
$20, saugatuckmusic.org, (269) 857-1424