Lakes Area Music Festival organizers are not letting the coronavirus stop them from providing classical music to the Brainerd lakes area.

Organizers announced they will proceed with the 12th annual season, but in a virtual format. The announcement was made May 15 during a Zoom interview when Scott Lykins, executive and artistic director; John Taylor Ward, associated artistic director; and Carol Russel, board member, sat down with the Dispatch to discuss its upcoming season.

Lakes Area Music Festival is a nonprofit musical organization that brings 200 all-star artists from top orchestras and opera companies around the world to perform three weeks of free classical music performances each summer in the Brainerd lakes area. Lykins founded the music festival in 2009 when he returned to his hometown of Brainerd with four musicians from the Eastman School of Music in New York. Lykins and his colleagues wanted to share their musical talents with the community and each year the audience base grew. The festival includes music from chamber music and symphonic orchestra, to productions of opera and ballet.

The initial 2020 season was scheduled to run from July 31 through Aug. 23. The season would have included more than 60 public events and 200 musicians from around the world who would travel to the lakes area and stay with host families. The festival also was working on its largest opera program ever hosting works by Richard Wagner, who is known for his monumental major works.

Since late February, Lykins and Ward looked at a variety of contingency options on how to proceed with the 2020 season, all while continuing to meet the mission of the organization, under the unforeseeable circumstances of social distancing and not hosting a large gathering of people.

Lakes Area Music Festival Artistic Directors John Taylor Ward (left) and Scott Lykins smile for a photo. Submitted photo
Lakes Area Music Festival Artistic Directors John Taylor Ward (left) and Scott Lykins smile for a photo. Submitted photo

Since the pandemic arrived performing arts organizations all over the world have closed their doors and canceled their summer events as they cannot have a full orchestra on stage with an audience and abide by all safety precautions. Organizations are losing revenue and, “At this point, almost every other summer music festival that does what we do has completely canceled, and is completely taking the summer off,” Lykins said. “Just recently in Minnesota, different organizations like Minnesota Orchestra have completely redone their summer season. Some of the other major festivals in Minnesota have also canceled.

“Recently the Minnesota Council for Nonprofits did a study on the impact on nonprofits of the pandemic and the arts are the No. 1 hit of the nonprofit industry in Minnesota. So that's kind of the world that we're working in.”

“It's a really difficult time for a lot of artists,” Ward said. “I’m just speaking personally as somebody who travels around the world doing performances for other organizations. I've had cancellations as far out as March of 2021. You see this entire worldwide community of artists sort of coming together and figuring out what their next steps are.”

Ward said there is no compensation for the musicians for the canceled concerts. He said there are organizations with enormous endowments that have been able to compensate artists for a canceled concert to organizations that had to let people go.

“The ethos of the Lakes Area Music Festival is we’re so much about our community,” Ward said. “And not just the community that we exist in Central Minnesota but trying to join together the community of artists worldwide, with the community of Brainerd and the surrounding areas so we thought that it is really important for us organizationally to provide some sort of compensation to artists who we're having to cancel on. That's a humanitarian effort on our part, but it's also just a long term thing that's going to help us continue to get those top artists from around the world to come ... and to be known as an organization that takes care of its artists.”

The decision

After careful consideration and keeping the safety of the artists and the audience at the forefront of their planning, organizers decided to stream the concerts and activities online instead of hosting live audiences at Tornstrom Auditorium in Brainerd. The musicians will still travel to the lakes area and perform on the stage at Tornstrom.

“Our plan is that we have selected a small number of our principal artists to perform with a smaller ensemble like a piano trio or a string quartet, rather than the full symphonies we have been doing,” Lykins said. “We've arranged our schedules so that there would never be more than 14 artists in town at a given time. And by doing that, we would be minimizing risk to the community and the artists.”

The 2020 season will involve about 50 performers, instead of 200. The number of performances also is reduced to 11 and will include opera and ballet.

The music festival will use platforms like Facebook Live or Zoom to stream its concerts. Festival organizers also are working with Minnesota Public Radio on sharing their music with as many people as possible.

“This is a real opportunity for us to grow our audience beyond the regional and statewide audience that we already have,” Lykins said. “This is a great opportunity as we move into our second decade of producing concerts and expanding our reach and the notoriety of the festival nationwide.

“This is an innovative approach that we think can get a lot of attention when so many people who do similar things have had to cancel. ... I think this has the potential to make a huge splash.”

The festival also plans to digitize its education activities for people of all ages to participate in them online. The Explore Music! program also may be more of an at-home family activity, where youths may partake in several different projects.

“We're also talking about how this gives us an opportunity for adult audiences, or high school musicians who want to learn more, where we'll be able to utilize educators and scholars worldwide,” Lykins said. “We have connections through our networks, who would be able to do some lectures and some different activities like that.”

The festival also will have open rehearsals along with a question-and-answer session with one of the artists. Organizers said having the open rehearsals online will mean more people can get involved and connect with their worldwide artists through this platform.

“This will fulfill our mission of connecting our audiences with our worldwide talents,” Lykins said.

Their feelings moving forward

“We were very excited about the plans we had for this coming season,” Lykins said of the original 2020 plan. “We had some really ambitious programs. We have some really extraordinary artists that would have brought our product to even higher levels. We had some other artistic announcements that we were very excited to make.

“Maneuvering this and being able to come up with other ways to connect with our audience is an exciting challenge that we probably wouldn't have chosen. But it is requiring a lot of day to day changes to be able to still pull something off. And that, I think, speaks to our organization, to our staff, our board and especially to our community's support. So we're able to approach these changes from a place of strength, rather than a place of desperation, and we're going to be able to fulfill our mission this summer in another way.”

Russel said from the board perspective: “I think one thing that's been really interesting is the board has been very, very aligned by their decisions and their recommendations so there's been no disagreement. The other thing is that the donors, the people who provide funding, whether it's advertising or whatever sponsorships, that has not fallen off at all. That's been really, really strong, which is pretty fascinating.There's a lot of unknowns to this, but people are believing in the organization, and we're also looking to next year, you know that's a big deal. We're going into that new performing arts space. So I think the commitment is as strong as ever.

“As Scott said, this is an opportunity for innovation. It really is. I mean, after going through all the disappointments of not having this and then you start thinking about it, we could be reaching people internationally ... and this could help us build our future, so it's pretty cool.”

“This is not ideal,” Ward said. “But, it's been so good to have people who love problem-solving to have all of these little puzzles to figure out how things will work. And so we're sort of breaking things up into what has to be decided now and what can wait until a little bit later to be decided, and to just maintain sort of a flexibility and a nimbleness in all of our programming.

“We are really tied to the health recommendations in making sure that we're doing everything by the book. And as that changes and evolves we want to be as prepared as possible to evolve along with it.”

Ward said even if things would get better in the next couple of months and start opening and allowing larger groups to meet, “I don't know that people would necessarily still just on a dime be ready to get into a packed auditorium. Another thing we've had to consider is that our musicians are staying in homes and the idea of somebody coming from around the world to live in your house right now is not appealing. So these are some of the little puzzles that we're solving and trying to make a product that is safe, but that is still ambitious with our programming and it is still going to be fulfilling and nourishing for the community.”

Program updates

  • Summer Solstice at St. Mathias — canceled.

  • Prelude Series — canceled.

  • Thalea String Quartet Residency — postponed.

  • Cabaret — canceled.

  • Outdoor yoga — rescheduled.

  • Water music, Gull Lake Yacht Club — rescheduled.



JENNIFER KRAUS may be reached at jennifer.kraus@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5851. Follow me at www.twitter.com/jennewsgirl on Twitter.