The Beethoven Festival Is a Fantastic and Strange Work of Art

This fun, free-flowing music festival is not easily confused with the other classical events in Chicago this summer.

JACK quartet

photo: stephen poff

JACK quartet will play the Beethoven Festival in September.

There’s something different about the Beethoven Festival.

It’s not the well-oiled machine they run at Ravinia, and it doesn’t compare to the outdoor sprawl of the Grant Park Music Festival.

With its theme for this year—love—just announced, and a full schedule slated to appear in July, now’s the time to consider what makes this festival stand out. Last season’s opening concert is a good place to start.   

The seats at the National Pastime Theatre were uncomfortable and the hall was shabby. After the opening piece, we were told that the soloist for the Beethoven Violin Concerto, James Ehnes, was late. We sat, chatting quietly for 10 minutes until Ehnes emerged, not from backstage, but from the lobby. He walked down the aisle smiling and apologizing, holding his Strad violin.

Then he played. It was transporting. Ehnes performed with emotion and virtuosity, through rococo theme-spinning cadenzas. He played a movement of a Bach partita flawlessly.

What was special wasn’t merely the quality of the performance, which was stellar. And it wasn’t just the contrast between the surroundings and the performance. It was the way it all cohered, the way the beautiful playing merged with the lack of pretension.

Tracking the growth of the Beethoven Festival has been like watching the evolution of an organism. The 2011 festival spanned five days and 25 events, while the 2012 festival was nine days long and had 60 events. The lineup for 2013 features more than 100 events over nine days from September 7 to 15. Each year, organizers add more fields, including theatre, dance, and master classes. This year, there will be events about fashion, literature and education. The composer and conductor Matthias Pintscher will return to the festival to conduct Bach’s St. John Passion, Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, and his own music. Pianist and From the Top host Christopher O’Riley, known for his solo-piano adaptations of Radiohead, will also perform in addition to new-music hotcakes JACK Quartet (above).

“My challenge as the artistic director is to reinvent ourselves every year,” says the festival’s president and founder George Lepauw. “We don’t want to present the same festival twice.”

Lepauw, a native Parisian, says he drew inspiration from local French festivals. “Everybody is participating, down to the breadmaker,” he says. “You’d go to a concert with two or three thousand other people, and [afterward] everybody was talking about what you just saw. Towns would come alive with these things.”

I have a theory about the Beethoven Festival. It’s art. Don’t get me wrong—Ravinia, Grant Park and all the rest present art of the highest caliber, but the organizers of the Beethoven Festival work with festival-planning as their chosen artistic medium.

I asked Lepauw whether he saw it that way. “You’re right,” he said. “The festival itself is a work of art. You walk in, and you belong to the work of art. It’s an installation. It’s a living body, a living universe.”

The Beethoven Festival runs September 7 through September 15.

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