Organizers with the Lakes Area Music Festival didn’t let the 2020 pandemic stop them from bringing classical music and opera to the Brainerd lakes area.
They embraced it.
Changes were made and the nonprofit music organization last year hosted virtual concerts, reaching more than 60,000 people from all around the world — not just people in the Brainerd lakes area.
This summer’s 2021 concert series is approaching and organizers have once again amped up the season and plan to once again “wow” their audiences.
Lakes Area Music Festival artistic directors Scott Lykins, streaming from Minneapolis, and John Taylor Ward, streaming New York; and Carol Russell, board member, streaming from her north Brainerd home — took time out of their day Friday, April 30, to visit with the Dispatch via Zoom to make a few big announcements about the festival’s upcoming season titled “New Roots.”
“Last year, in our 2020 season we were one of the first and only music festivals to produce a full season of concerts (virtually),” Lykins said. “This season, we're on the cutting edge again as being one of the first organizations to present live concerts of orchestra and opera.”
That’s right — the 2021 season, which runs July 30 to Aug. 22 — will be performed in front of a live audience in the new performing arts center, which is scheduled to open soon on the north side of Brainerd High School.
Voters in the Brainerd Public Schools in 2018 approved a $145.8 million bond referendum, which included an enhanced performing arts center, of which the music festival will be a primary tenant. The 1,200-seat auditorium has main floor and balcony seating; concert and theater stage configurations; an orchestra pit for more than 70 musicians; advanced lighting, sound and other technical elements; a multipurpose atrium for smaller events; and backstage amenities for performers.
“This performance space is very exciting for us and the community,” Russell said. “There were things about this space that were customized for our performances, such as the orchestra pit had to be enlarged, which is very necessary for us and for our opera.”
The performing arts center has 1,200 seats, but with the current state guidelines, restrictions allow about 350 people per concert.
“This will probably change between now and August,” Lykins said. “It’s a big deal that we're returning to live performances of orchestra and opera, but it won't be all back to normal. We'll have limited size audiences. Audiences will be wearing their masks, and they'll be social distanced throughout the auditorium for the concerts.”
Lykins said because of limited seating — the music festival also will livestream their performances, so people who weren't able to get a seat may still watch the concert virtually.
“We also now have this new global audience that learned about us last year through streaming concerts, so they will all still be able to engage in our music festival concert series.”
Organizers said the festival is one of the fastest growing summer music festivals in the nation, drawing 200 artists from the nation’s best orchestras and opera companies each season. For nearly a month, chamber music, orchestra, opera and ballet are produced in downtown Brainerd. Each performance is free to attend and has donation-based admission in a commitment to make world-class art accessible to all.
“One thing that is really important for people in Brainerd to know is we are now getting national and international exposure for the whole area,” Russell said. “By livestreaming, we're reaching a much broader audience than those who simply came to Tornstrom Auditorium ... adding to our really strong tourism destination.”
Ward added the music festival not only maintained its audience but it continues to grow each year.
Lykins said when looking at music festivals around the country, what is exciting about them is people travel all over the world to see the live performances.
“I think the artistic quality that we've built over the past ... decade, lands us in a place where our programs are worth traveling to,” Lykins said. “With last year’s livestreams, we’re growing the reputation and the awareness of the national classical music community. So when people are planning (trips) to go to Aspen (Colorado) and to Tanglewood (Boston, Massachusetts), they're also making a stop by in the Brainerd lakes area to see the performances.”
The music festival typically has a prelude of concerts before the regular season, but this year organizers plan to put all their focus in the main season. Lakes Area Music Festival fans will recognize several familiar faces of musicians who will be performing this year, including harpist Emily Levino of the Dallas Symphony and soprano Brandie Sutton of the Metropolitan Opera. There also are ensembles from around the world that will be represented in the upcoming season, including symphonies from North Carolina, Nashville, San Francisco and Oregon to name a few.
The Lakes Area Music Festival will continue its Explore Music! program, open rehearsals led by featured musicians and community events, such as “Live Music Yoga,” “Cabernet & Cabaret,” “Downtown Block Party” and Musicians’ Night Out.”
For more information on the music festival go to lakesareamusic.org.
New music director
The Lakes Area Music Festival named Christian Reif as the festival’s first music director.
“We are pleased to welcome such a distinguished and creative new voice to the artistic leadership of the Lakes Area Music Festival,” Lykins stated in a news release. “The rapport between Christian and our roster of musicians creates an inspiring atmosphere for music-making which is apparent both to those on stage and in the audience. His vision is already evident in the programming for our upcoming season, and will continue to enrich our mission for years to come.”
Reif, a German conductor, has quickly established a name for himself as a fast-rising talent, the release stated. In July 2019, Reif completed a three-year post as resident conductor of the San Francisco Symphony and music director of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra. His tenure culminated in a six-city European tour with the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, including performances at Vienna’s Musikverein, Berlin Philharmonie and Hamburg Elbphilharmonie, the release stated.
In the 2016, 2017 and 2018 seasons, Reif conducted closing symphony performances in Brainerd, becoming a popular addition to the roster in the eyes of artists and audiences alike.
In his new role he will return to lead six orchestral programs as well as a production of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” in the 2021 season.
“The summers I‘ve spent with the wonderful musicians and community in Brainerd have already been highlights in my music-making life and have been lots of fun,” Reif stated. “One thing that I’ve always felt strongly about this festival is that the community is not just built around music but that music is here to build community. I‘m really looking forward to engaging in meaningful and inspiring interactions with the audience in the years to come.”
Reif has conducted the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Dallas Symphony, Ulster Orchestra, Romanian Radio Symphony, Aalborg Symphony, Fundación Excelentia in Madrid, North Carolina Symphony, San Antonio Symphony, Santa Barbara Symphony, Toledo Symphony, Colorado Springs Philharmonic, Orchestre National de Belgique and Orquestra Sinfonica Portuguese in Lisbon.
Most recently, he conducted the Stavanger Symphony in a program of Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” and Shostakovich Symphony No. 1 paired with Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” with soprano Julia Bullock, and made his debut in March 2021 with the Orchestre National d’île de France in a streamed performance of Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète.
His 2021-22 engagements include appearances with the Hallé Orchestra, Gävle Symphony, Orchestre National de Lyon, Odense Symphony, Munich Radio Orchestra, Brno Philharmonic, New World Symphony and Kansas City Symphony.
Reif was a conducting fellow with the New World Symphony from 2014-16 and a conducting fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center in the summers of 2015-16.
He studied with Alan Gilbert at the Juilliard School, where he completed his master’s of music in conducting in 2014 and received the Charles Schiff Conducting Award. Prior to that, Reif studied with Dennis Russelll Davies at the Mozarteum Salzburg, where he received a diploma in 2012. He is winner of the 2015 German Operetta Prize, awarded by the German Music Council, and two Kulturförderpreise awards given to promising artists of the region who promote cultural advancement in their communities.