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Youth and music at Innsbrook

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 10, 2010 - On Friday, as the first bow is drawn across taut string, the 10th annual Innsbrook Institute Summer Music Academy and Festival will commence. The event, organized by the festival's director David Halen, runs from the June 11 through June 20 and will feature a variety of performance from both world-renown performers and their students.

One such artist is harpist Yolanda Kondonassis, a traveling soloist and a professor at Oberlin College in Ohio. She played with the St. Louis Symphony for a season in the early '90s and is looking forward to her return and participation in the festival.

The Innsbrook Festival "is really energetic," she said. "It is young, which makes it fresh."

In its tenth year, the festival is indeed young. Those involved do not view this as a negative but rather as an opportunity to attract new audiences and revisit the "old" classical music from a fresh vantage point. Kondonassis described the atmosphere as "spontaneous," which was a word echoed by director Halen.

"Once you humanize (classical music), the audience doesn't feel intimidated, they can listen inside the music." Halen said. "It allows for spontaneity when you are recreating this masterpiece."

This atmosphere of accessibility is one of the most important aspects of the festival.

"It's a youthful energy that the performers draw on and the audience interacts with" Halen says.

Halen especially mentioned violinist Gille Apap (who is something to behold: the man plays the violin as if it were a full-contact sport akin to football or rugby, with massively impressive and emotive improvisations that seem to originate from not just the instrument but his whole body from his feet to his unceasingly moving hands.)

Kodonassis relates the interplay between the audience and the performers to the world of auto-mechanics.

As a performer, she said, "you put out a lot of energy. It's like a car battery. You re-energize with an interactive audience."

Violinist Chee-Yun also appreciates the audiences that the festival draws.

"They are the friendliest audience I've played for," she said.

The naturalistic qualities such as energy and electricity of which the performers speak are something Halen has worked hard to cultivate. Modeling the event after others, such as the Aspen Music Festival, part of the intrinsic charm is derived from what Halen refers to as the "beautiful, natural setting of Innsbrook."

"We are near a metropolitan area, but still in the country," he said.

Halen feels the bucolic backdrop in Warren County is one of the most important aspects of the festival.

"We create an idyllic setting to appreciate art in a natural context. There is something closely related between this type of music and the structure of our planet. There is nothing more inspiring than hearing a masterpiece while watching the sun set on the water."

The outdoors create a relaxed atmosphere for everyone involved, different from the classic stuffiness of the September to May classic season.

"In the summer, it's a chance to loosen up, go to places you normally wouldn't be in," Kondonassis said.

Adding to the relaxed atmosphere are the performers themselves, many of whom are longtime friends.

"It's sometimes just as much about seeing the people as the music," Kondonassis said, when talking of her longtime friend Chee-Yun as well as some of the other performers. "David Halen knows how to put a group of people together."

You can let your hair down."

And hair down is a good tip for anyone considering attending these concerts in the new summer heat.

Luckily, a new feature should cool patrons and, along with the precisely struck note, lighten their heads just a tad: wine tastings paired with corresponding pieces. For example:

  • A white wine is paired with a similarly light and refreshing Mozart string quartet.
  • Also, Kondonassis and Chee-Yun will be performing what the violinist calls a "sensual" French piece that will be paired with a corresponding French wine.
  • For the bravest, and heartiest, in the crowd, there will even be a combination of a piece by a Russian composer and a taste of vodka. All of which is part of the welcoming attitude of the festival. As Halen would say, "It is something for all senses."

Another important feature is the participation of students. Youths and young adults from around the area and elsewhere are invited by audition to the festival, where they are taught by the professionals and are then called upon to perform. Having the kids around, Halen said, is one of the reasons the festival has such a youthful feel.
"They create an electricity. If they are not there, it is not the same," he said. "The students with the artists, they get inspired."

Chee-Yun remembers a similar experience when she was an aspiring musician.

"I remember sitting next to (the late, famous Austrian violinist) Felix Galimir at Malboro (a similar festival and an predecessor to the Innsbrook Festival) in 1990," she said. "He sat me first chair."

The relationships forged between artist and student over the two weeks is vital, as it gives the students important contacts and helps them transition into professional careers. In fact, many students later return to the festival as interns or even as performers.

"We give them a leg up," Halen said. "Once you establish a rapport, the kids feel comfortable."

Above all, the festival is an opportunity to get out in the summer weather, surrounded by the landscapes of out-state Missouri, and among likeminded and enthusiastic people. Kondonassis sums it up best: "It's just fun."

Jack McClellan is a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin and an intern for the Beacon.